From The Memphis Flyer (Old)
Arkansas Speed Trap Blues
The little town of Gilmore, Arkansas, (population 331) finds itself the center of controversy over its aggressive Arkansas speeding ticket policy.
by Phil Campbell
You're driving down a wide-open stretch of highway. The A/C is humming and the radio's cranked up loud. Your tank is full and your bladder's empty. You're in a good mood. There's nothing to stop you now, not a soul in sight as you push the pedal just a little harder to the floor.
Suddenly there's a siren, and a flashing set of lights in your rear view mirror. If you haven't got your seat belt on already, you've got it on now. It had been just you and the open road, but now your privacy has been violated. Your mood is ruined. As the officer approaches, you pull out your license, knowing this Arkansas speeding ticket is going to cost you.
Having experienced this situation myself, I was sympathetic when associate publisher Bruce VanWyngarden told me about a ticket he received in Gilmore, Arkansas. Bruce is usually a mild-mannered kind of boss. Getting a speeding ticket in Gilmore, however, seemed to have pushed him over the edge.
"Those guys are running a scam," he swore. "It's a joke." His hands clenched the table so hard that fine sawdust flowed between his bare-white knuckles. His mustache quivered ominously. Each time he told the story of the cop clocking him at 76 when he was only going 58, his face got redder.
An out-of-state motorist in a backwater part of eastern Arkansas? An Arkansas speeding ticket along the same stretch of highway for the second year in a row? Something's going on here, Bruce said, and he asked me to look into it.
I begin with Joanie, a telephone operator who works in Jonesboro, not far from Gilmore. Actually, I just called to get the number for the Gilmore city hall, but before she gives me that information she inserts her own two cents.
"That's a popular place to get speeding tickets," she warns me. "Yeah, it's bad." Joanie says she is always careful to drive slowly through Gilmore.
I try to call the mayor in Gilmore, Paul McClelland, but it turns out that he works in Memphis at an industrial supply business on South Main. A bald man with a thin mustache, McClelland looks at me suspiciously. "You can get budget information through the Freedom of Information Act. Nell will help you up there. I have nothing more to say to you."
McClelland and the Gilmore Police Department, it turns out, have been accused of ticketing speeders unfairly since 1993, when the police department was first established. According to newspaper reports from the Jonesboro Sun, Gilmore has given officers traffic-ticket quotas, targeted out-of-state motorists, and collected more revenue from Arkansas speeding tickets than it may know what to do with. What's more, the Arkansas state legislature has held hearings to look into the behavior of the police department of Gilmore and Tyronza, which is farther up the highway. Subsequently, a law was passed, known as the "speed trap" bill, which bans a city from taking more than 30 percent of its revenue from traffic tickets.
In a counter-move last June, Gilmore audaciously annexed land that would increase its boundaries (and police jurisdiction) tenfold and take in much more of Highway 63. Right now, everyone is waiting for the results of a state audit. If Gilmore has been collecting more than 30 percent of its revenue from traffic tickets, it may have to give up its law-enforcement jurisdiction over the highway.
Gilmore, Arkansas. Population 331. As speed traps go, it would be hard to design a better setup than the strip of Highway 63 from the I-55 exit to the Crittenden County line. Heading south from Jonesboro toward Memphis, the speed limit abruptly drops from 70 mph to 55 mph. Heading north from Memphis, you whip around a clover leaf from an exit off I-55, which has a 70 mph limit, onto another four-lane highway, this one with a speed limit of 55.
Highway 63 isn't just an off-ramp for I-55, either. It is the road to Jonesboro, population 50,000, and the gateway to the Arkansas Ozarks, as well as the country music mecca, Branson, Missouri. And people from all over drive Highway 63 to Eureka Springs, Arkansas, which has been holding a European-style "passion play," based on the last days of Christ, for so long that they're expecting audience member No. 6,000,000 sometime this week. With those kind of pickings, it's not surprising that Gilmore's two police officers have written as many as 450 tickets a month. And it's not difficult to envision a police officer targeting out-of-state motorists, or jumping up the recorded radar speed a bit. Who's going to return to eastern Arkansas to contest it?
Paul McCafferty, a deputy with the Crittenden County Sheriff's Department, says Gilmore may be getting an unfair rap. "I've driven down there myself and had people almost turn me around in the middle of the road, they were driving so fast. It was like an Autobahn going through there. Now you got people who drive through there getting stopped. All of a sudden it's a speed trap."
State Sen. Jerry Bookout ("Senator Speedy," as he has been dubbed), on the other hand, tends to take the motorists' point of view. Bookout gets plenty of complaints every week from Jonesboro constituents and tourists who are mad about a ticket. If they're visitors to Arkansas, they often say that visit was their last. "[That side of] Arkansas is a big funnel," he says. "They're just sitting at the neck of that funnel zapping people. It's unconscionable.
"My contention all along has been that Arkansas speeding ticket traffic laws are for the safety of the motoring public," he adds. "They're not there to raise more revenue. Where does that end? The idea of a policeman hiding with a radar gun and trapping somebody — hell, that's bushwacking."
It's hard to determine how much money Gilmore's police department has been collecting lately because state auditors are holding Gilmore's 1994 through mid-'96 financial records until a full audit can be completed. However, in 1994 the Jonesboro Sun reported more than 350 citations one month, 450 in another. In contrast, the city of Jonesboro, which has 148 times the population of Gilmore and which claims a longer portion of Highway 63, handed out 454 tickets. West Memphis police officers handed out just 245 tickets during that same period.
Here are some other things the Sun has dug up over the past couple of years:
While employed as a Gilmore police officer, Jay Southard operated a radar gun along Highway 63 even though he wasn't trained to use it, a violation of state law. Southard told the Sun that McClelland ordered officers to give out tickets under a quota system, 10 a day, in violation of state law. McClelland denies the charge. At one point Gilmore officers had the authority to dismiss tickets after they had been issued, a potential blessing for some drivers, but nonetheless a violation of state law.
Media attention began when Bookout began his anti-speed-trap complaints. Of course, the fact that Gilmore cops had given tickets to an assistant publisher and an associate editor of the Sun didn't exactly help the city's image in the press. Stan Mitchell, a Sun reporter who has covered Gilmore for the past couple of years, says he fears the day he gets pulled over by a Gilmore cop. "I even try to change cars as often as I can," he says. "[McClelland] just says we beat up on him and that's all we're trying to do."
Mayor McClelland fumbled his chance to refute the accusations that had been leveled at him, his town, and his police department during a state senate hearing on the issue last year. Instead of denying that a speed trap exists, or appealing to the senators for their sympathy on Gilmore's financial crisis ($9,000 monthly expenses with only $3,600 in the checking account to pay them, McClelland says), the part-time mayor accused a number of senators of having a conflict of interest regarding his town. He pointed out that one senator had a brother in the county jail. He accused another senator of being bitter over a contested Arkansas speeding ticket. Before he could get to even more senators, he was promptly and angrily cut off. It was not exactly an advisable tactic, attacking legislators on their own turf.
"Everyone in attendance got pretty hostile," says Bookout. "It was really unseemly to present that justification. It was just tacky. Offensive, really, for responsible people."
And then there's the annexation business. For more than four decades, Gilmore was content to exist on the other side of the railroad tracks from Highway 63, with just a sliver of land reaching out to the state route. In 1994, the town filed an application with the county to annex 7,900 acres into the city limits, much of it foreclosed farmland. The annexation, granted last year, extended Gilmore's claim over the highway from a few hundred feet to several miles. "[Police jurisdiction over 63] has nothing to do with annexation," insists McClelland, who agreed to talk to me in Memphis after I approach him a second time. "The people in outlying areas wanted better police and fire protection, water lines and garbage pick-up." The vote in the annexed area during the referendum was 108 for, 25 against.
In the glare of the media spotlight, the Gilmore mayor is pretty tight-lipped. He waits for my questions, then answers them briefly. It seems he can barely tolerate me. "I stopped reading the Sun after the 50th negative story," he says. "I called [Sun editor Larry] Fewgate and I asked him to print a retraction, but he told me that retractions don't sell newspapers, hot stories do. Today I don't read newspapers. Nobody's getting a penny from me."
After I thank him for his time, McClelland says, "Don't come back."
I walk around Gilmore in hopes of getting a sense of local opinion. "It's all politics," pronounces Nell Brewington, the court clerk who doubles as the town librarian. No doubt aware of the effects of ticking off the media, Nell patiently explains what happens with the money from citations at the end of each month. The county gets exactly $4,808.77 from court costs ($50 per speeding-ticket contestant). The city takes $1,094.46, and the state takes the rest of the court fees. The city retains all speeding-ticket fines. "To the public, it's 'Oh, they get that whole $105.' It's not that way," she says. Brewington alleges that another relative of another state senator has been arrested by Gilmore police, but she doesn't provide details.
Court is in session once a month, and Brevington and city clerk Cathy Moore get the brunt of the abuse. "They come in here and they chew us girls out," she says. "And it's 55 mph and they're going 73. So you listen to them rant and then you say, 'Sir, how fast were you going?'"
At the West End Cafe near the center of town, opinions fly faster than the mosquitoes that buzz around us. This is the only bar for miles, and patrons come for the two pool tables and the cheap beer. Can't say much for the bathrooms, though.
Outside the cafe, three regulars sit ignoring the bugs, staring at random, familiar things across the street, skills they have acquired after decades of practice. When I approach them, they are more than happy to mull over the situation. One major concern that becomes apparent is how tighter police patrolling affects the local economy. When the police started cracking down, people from places like Turrell, Tyronza, and Marked Tree stopped coming by. Too many of them were getting arrested for DUI.
"People don't drink nothing but beer here and shoot a little pool," says James Smith, a hefty man whose eyes don't really focus on anyone when he talks. He and the others talk so fast I quickly lose track of who's saying what.
"You don't do no policing out here. They go out on the highway…"
"They're supposed to be policing the town…"
"We never needed no police here. They suddenly get a police department and they think they can do whatever they want…"
"I can't understand why they need two policemen for 331 people…"
"They tried to build up this town into a city. I think they were doing fine when we had the sheriff's department."
"We're losing money hiring two policemen…"
"Unless we're making money on tickets…"
"Look," interjects Willie Turner Jr., who sits to Smith's left. "When you're breaking the law, you're supposed to get a ticket." He turns to me. "Why are you out here now?"
"Because my boss got a ticket."
"Was he guilty?"
I say yes. He has admitted to driving faster than the posted 55 mph.
"Aww, man. If he was guilty, he should have gotten a ticket."
by Bruce VanWyngarden
I've written a lot of objective news stories in my life. This isn't one of them. This story is personal, my $200 worth of payback to a speed-trap scam.
A year and a half ago, I was driving east along Highway 14, a flat two-lane blacktop near the city of Marked Tree, Arkansas, when an approaching car began flashing its headlights. As the vehicle neared I realized it was a police car, and as we passed each other the officer waved at me to stop.
I was informed by the officer that he had "scoped" me from his approaching vehicle and that I had been driving 76 mph in a 55 mph zone. Now, I don't drive 76 mph on the interstate, and certainly wasn't going that fast on a two-lane country blacktop. In fact, I had been relaxed, talking with my fishing partner, cruising at around 60 mph at most. Angry, but figuring an argument was futile, I accepted my $100 ticket and continued on to Memphis.
When I called my insurance agent to tell him about my Arkansas speeding ticket, he laughed and said, "Where was it? Marked Tree, Tyronza, or Gilmore?"
As I told my story to friends and acquaintances, I learned that most of them had either personally experienced the speed-trap gauntlet along Highway 63 just north of the I-55 exits, or knew someone who had. And everyone had a Gilmore story. They told me that the town's city budget was based on traffic-ticket income, that the cops had quotas, that they targeted out-of-state drivers, and that they wrote hundreds of tickets a month. I took most of this with a grain of salt, and considered my ticket a learning experience. Until this past July. That's when it became personal.
It was a warm Saturday morning and I was headed to the Norfork River for a solitary fishing weekend. As I exited I-55 and pulled onto Highway 63, I was quite aware of my location and consciously kept my speed at about 58 mph. Within a minute the flashing lights of a police car appeared in my rearview mirror. I was stunned. They were pulling me over for going 58? I said a very, very bad word. Twice. The officer approached my car and said, "Sir, this is a 55 mile-per-hour zone. I had you on the scope at 76 miles per hour."
I ranted. I raged. The cop stayed calm. He almost seemed amused. He finally said, "It won't do you any good to argue with me. If you think my radar is off, you can tell it to the judge. That's why we have court dates. Have a nice day." The ticket was for $105. I resolved that I would go to court and fight the bastards.
My court date was August 22nd at 5 p.m. I got to town at around 4 and decided to look around. It didn't take long. Gilmore itself is visible only as a water tower from Highway 63. The actual town lies behind elevated railroad tracks a few hundred yards from the highway. The city-limits sign declares that Gilmore has a population of 331, which seems highly wishful. I counted 50 or so houses, most of them small and ramshackle. The only other building of note is the tiny one-story, two-room brick edifice that serves as courthouse, library, and fire station.
The small gravel parking lot began to fill with cars, many of them with Tennessee plates. I spoke with one matronly type who looked like she'd just left her bridge game at the University Club. She sat in the front seat of her Catalina and told me she'd been cited for driving 75 mph. "Why, I never drove faster than 65 in my life," she said. I believed her. Another man, a Memphis attorney, said he'd been cited for failing to yield right-of-way when pulling onto Highway 63. "There was nobody coming to yield to," he said. "It's a scam." I believed him.
Inside, it was first come, first served. Sign in, please. Standing room only. Thirty or so folding chairs were roughly lined up in the cramped library. The judge, a portly, bald man in a maroon sport coat, was seated behind a folding table in front of what appeared to be a complete collection of Nancy Drew paperbacks. As the room filled to overflowing, he got up and stepped outside to eat a Snickers bar. Apparently satisfied, the judge, whom I later discovered is a West Memphis attorney named Jan Thomas, returned to his table and called court to order.
"You can plead guilty, not guilty, or nolo contendere," he said in an Arkansas drawl. "If you plead guilty you will be allowed to give a mitigating statement, after which the court will administer your sentence. If you plead not guilty, well, then we'll set a court date, call in the witnesses against you, and we'll just see who wins."
My original plan had been to take the high road, to plead not guilty and hope that the cop who wrote my ticket wouldn't show up. But now it appeared that this was just an interim court appearance of some sort, that if I really wanted to fight the Arkansas speeding ticket I'd have to get a lawyer and put my word up against the cop's radar. I had little doubt who'd win that battle. So I did what almost everyone did: plead guilty and try to mitigate like hell.
I stood in front of the judge and my bemused fellow offenders and pointed out the utter illogic of my driving 76 mph in an area where I'd gotten a ticket a year before. I told him how I'd gotten only two speeding tickets in my life, both within 10 miles of Gilmore. I told him I simply wasn't driving 76 mph. Period.
He said. "Were you speeding?"
I said, "I was maybe going 58."
He said, "I'll reduce your fine to $50, plus court costs."
Court costs, cleverly enough, were $50. My trip to Gilmore had lowered my ticket a whopping $5. But what really got my goat was that my $100 check did not go to the state of Arkansas, or Crittenden County, or even the city of Gilmore, but to the Gilmore Police Department. Why would such a tiny burg have radar cops out on a state highway that didn't even go through the town? And what recourse does a citizen have when a cop says his radar has you speeding and you weren't? And what's the point of having a court date if you have to plead guilty in order to get a verdict on that date?
Throwing my associate-publisher weight around, I asked Flyer reporter Phil Campbell to look into the situation. What he discovered is a litany of speed-trap stereotypes come true — ticket quotas, absurdly gerrymandered city limits, the targeting of out-of-state drivers, to name a few. Turns out my friends weren't exaggerating after all.
Gilmore is the exception. However, with the increase in insurance premiums for just one of two Arkansas speeding tickets, speeding can have a major impact on your pocketbook. In many cases retaining an attorney may actually save you money since reductions in the fine and points are the norm if you have an attorney.
The good news about insurance rates are that they are actually decreasing for the first time in years. If you have received a speeding ticket you should consider renewing you insurance prior to court in order to receive a better quotation.
Online traffic school is an option in some Arkansas courts to keep your Arkansas speeding ticket off your record. Take the course, pay the fine, and the Arkansas speeding ticket does not show for insurance purposes. Since the cost of just one traffic ticket can be $100's of dollars in premiums, not a bad deal. Usually you can contact the court by phone and make the arrangements. Here is the link for more info:
Here is the link to the Little Rock Arkansas Traffic Court.
For the Arkansas Department of Motor Vehicles
You do not have the right to a jury trial for your Arkansas Speeding Ticket at the traffic court level. You can appeal to circuit court and get a new trial by jury.
For serious Arkansas speeding tickets you need to consider retaining an Arkansas Traffic Attorney. If you are a CDL truck driver or drive a company vehicle, it is very important to keep a clean record.
One of the best ways to prevent inadvertent speeding tickets is to purchase a good radar and laser detector. If it saves you from just one ticket it will have paid for itself. Click on the link below for our recommendations on radar detectors and laser detectors and laser jammers.