Small towns: villains or victims of Missouri's speed trap law?

01/03/2013 12:00 AM

05/16/2014 8:41 PM

Mention the “Macks Creek law” to police and court officers in Missouri’s tiniest municipalities, and they know you’re talking speed traps.

It is an especially sore subject in Lone Jack.

Late last year, the southeastern Jackson County city was accused in a state audit of collecting more revenue in traffic fines and court costs than allowed by an unusual Missouri statute. That law, dating to 1995, put Macks Creek, Mo., out of the speed-trap business and ultimately led to its bankruptcy.

So, Lone Jack, you owe the state Department of Revenue $119,535 for three years of heavy ticketing, according to Missouri Auditor Thomas Schweich.

That’s a crushing bill for a place with an annual operating budget of about $900,000.

Lone Jack officials dispute the auditor’s math, which reduced the town’s overall general revenues by excluding some local taxes and fees earmarked for specific needs. In doing so, the state found that Lone Jack’s traffic fines were a larger part of its income pie than permitted.

“We’re not going to comment any further,” said Mayor Ken Krawchuk. “It’s a bad topic.”

Bigger cities with wide sources of revenue don’t face this situation, said Chris Kopecky, a Kansas City lawyer specializing in traffic cases.

“But there are so many little municipalities that write tickets like there’s no tomorrow” to support their limited coffers, he said. “This law tries to hold them in check.”

To be fair, Lone Jack, population about 1,000, is no Macks Creek — a Lake of the Ozarks village that drew national attention for its artful ways of nailing speeders and minor road offenders.

Most of the citations written up by Lone Jack police involve four-lane U.S. 50, where the state-set speed limit is 65 through the town’s limits. The posted speeds don’t bounce around in classic speed-trap fashion, but if you drive much faster than 65 you’re apt to get pulled over.

Why? The locals turning onto U.S. 50 from intersecting roads know the white-knuckled experience of trying to beat the oncoming racers.

“We enforce the law, period,” and will keep doing so to protect the citizenry, said Police Chief William Forbes. “How could I look a citizen in the face and say that if someone’s going 80, 85 down that highway, we’re going to look the other way?”

Under the so-called Macks Creek law, which state legislators stiffened in 2009, cities are restricted from deriving more than 35 percent of their operating revenues from fines for traffic violations on state or federal highways. If the revenues from traffic cases go over that cap, the cities must send the excess revenues to the Department of Revenue.

The state is then supposed to send that money to schools in the county where the fines were collected.

The rule in 1998 drew the Los Angeles Times, among other media, to Macks Creek — population 272 in Camden County. The Times featured “the story of a little town that lived by the speeding ticket and died by the speeding ticket.”

Macks Creek sat between two steep hills where the posted limit on U.S. 54 abruptly changed from 65 to 45 mph. More than three-quarters of the town’s revenues had been generated from traffic fines until then-state Rep. Delbert Scott wrote the law.

Cheers rose out of the General Assembly when Scott’s bill passed, as several legislators and their constituents had been nailed by the town’s hidden patrols.

(They included Scott, who says he had been pulled over after his tires touched the white line near the roadway’s shoulder.)

“There’s something unjust about highway robbery, literally, when it’s not for safety issues but to strictly raise revenues,” said Scott, who now lives in Overland Park.

More than a decade would pass, however, before another Missouri town would be fingered for exceeding the Macks Creek threshold.

That place was Randolph — a 50-person speck of a municipality in Clay County, often brimming with motorists heading to Oceans of Fun or Ameristar Casino.

The town was cited in 2010 by the auditor’s office for relying on traffic fines for as much as 89 percent of its annual general revenues.

“It’s completely unfair,” said Craig Sweeney, Randolph city attorney, who called the law a “knee-jerk reaction to a bad situation in Macks Creek” nearly 20 years ago.

Sweeney said strict enforcement of the speed-trap law would bankrupt many small towns battling traffic problems. Worse yet, he said, dangerous drivers might go unstopped just to allow those cities to stay below their revenue limits.

So far, the amount the state says Randolph owes — between $39,000 and $54,000, the auditor estimated — has yet to be resolved or sent.

In fact, records show no Missouri city had turned excess traffic-fine revenues over to the state until Lone Jack did so, voluntarily, in 2010. The city self-reported about $19,000 in excess fines; the state now is asking for more.

“I’ll bet lots of cities and villages don’t even know about that requirement,” or they just ignore it, said Harry Otto, a deputy state auditor.

Said ex-lawmaker Scott: “Frankly, the law’s never had much teeth. There’s not any enforcement mechanism within the law” to compel towns with excess traffic-fine revenues to relinquish the money.

“It’s mostly intended to let the light of day shine in” and to show municipalities — and their residents — when ticketing appears to exceed what the state considers a necessary amount, Scott said.

Loan Jack officials, responding to the recent audit, called the speed-trap law “vague and subject to differing interpretations. The city will timely make its determination of excess revenues, if any.”

Some residents say they want tight patrols on U.S. 50, where a wreathed memorial to a 2004 fatality still stands at the west edge of town.

Jack Ginnings of Jack’s Small Engine Repair recalled a teen killed several years ago while trying to cross the highway on a bicycle: “It’s always been bad.”

Lone Jack police issued 2,276 traffic citations and 459 warnings in 2011, according to data compiled by the Missouri attorney general’s office. All but a few hundred of the stops occurred on U.S. 50.

Figures in 2011 were down from 3,341 citations in 2009 and 2,362 in 2010.

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