Virginia Commonwealth University

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Putting the brakes on Virginia speed traps

April 20, 2015

By Sean CW Korsgaard

RICHMOND, Va. — The highway through Hopewell may not be paved in gold, but that has not stopped the city from making a mint off it. Taking advantage of a two-mile stretch of Interstate 295 that passes through the city, the Hopewell Sheriff’s Department issues about 1,000 speeding tickets a month, according to AAA Mid-Atlantic, the advocacy group for motorists. It said the speed trap generates over $1.8 million annually for city government.

But a state budget amendment approved by the General Assembly would help curb such practices by Hopewell and other localities, AAA said. The amendment reduces the financial incentive for local police to write excessive numbers of tickets.

“This amendment adjusts the formula by which local collections of fines and fees based on local ordinances may not exceed a certain threshold of the total collections of fines and fees beginning in fiscal year 2016,” according to a legislative note explaining the amendment.

AAA Mid-Atlantic, which serves more than 3.4 million members from New Jersey to Virginia, has made Hopewell’s “Million Dollar Mile” the focal point of its effort against “policing for profit.”

Currently, localities must return a portion of excess fine revenues to Virginia’s Literary Fund, which supports public education. Hopewell, for example, this year had to give the Literary Fund $86,000 – twice as much as any other locality, according to the Virginia Auditor of Public Accounts.

However, under the existing formula, the amount of money that localities must remit is so small that it has little impact curbing “policing for profit,” AAA said.

A new formula was included in House Bill 1400, a package of state budget amendments approved Thursday by the General Assembly. It is contained in amendments 3-6.05 #1c and 37 #1c, which were initially proposed by Sen. Charles Carrico, R-Galax, and Del. Matthew James, D-Portsmouth.

The new methodology will lower the threshold for determining whether local fine collections are excessive and will require localities to remit more of that money to the Literary Fund. The new formula will take effect July 1.

AAA lobbied for the amendment. It sent emails to its 200,000 Virginia members, with a link to send emails to Virginia lawmakers – in particular to budget conferees – “to let them know policing for profit shouldn’t be happening, and to please shut it down.”

“AAA has advocated for the safety of the traveling public for over a century and does not wish to condone speeding in any way,” said Martha Mitchell Meade, manager of public and government affairs for AAA Mid-Atlantic. “AAA simply feels that speed enforcement should be conducted in areas where speeding is a documented problem or other safety concerns exist.”

Hopewell employs 11 sheriff’s deputies working in 14-hour shifts to patrol 1.7 miles of interstate highway. Nearly three-fourths of the tickets were issued to out-of-state motorists, according to AAA. “These motorists are unlikely to come back to the area to fight their tickets but rather simply pay the associated fines and fees,” the group said in a statement last week.

The Hopewell Sheriff’s Department could not be reached for comment.

The Office of the State Inspector General looked at the situation in 2013 and reported, “The sheriff has stated that his intent is to slow down traffic on the interstate and make it safer for the traveling public.”

Virginia ranks seventh in the nation for the number of traffic tickets issued per year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

In addition, the agency said, Virginia is tied with Illinois for having the nation’s highest speeding fines – up to $2,500. Moreover, under Virginia law, reckless driving is a Class 1 misdemeanor.

“When the commonwealth raised its interstate speed limits a few years back, it failed to adjust the reckless driving threshold accordingly. So now, anyone caught going 11 mph over the posted speed on the interstate is subject to a reckless driving charge,” John Bowman, a spokesman for the National Motorists Association, said in an interview with Watchdog.org.

“Congestion, coupled with speed traps, red-light cameras and aggressive traffic enforcement make Virginia a very difficult place to drive.”