Slow your roll in Crittenden County ‘speed trap’ towns

Slow your roll in Crittenden County ‘speed trap’ towns

Sheriff calls out Earle, Jeri-cho for ticket- writing frenzy

Motorists passing through Earle and Jericho may want to check their speed and lay off the lead foot.

The county’s top law enforcement official said the two cities are the biggest speed traps in Crittenden County.

“I would say Earle is a speed trap,” said Sheriff Mike Allen. “I drive through there a lot and I’ve noticed that they are running more radar than before. And Jericho is doing the same thing.”

Allen said his department hears complaints about Earle and Jericho being speed traps “all the time.”

From Jan. 1, 2015 through Jan. 1, 2017, officers in Earle wrote 978 speeding tickets. During that same two year time period in Jericho, that city’s officers wrote 1,187 speeding tickets.

Both cities have state highways running through their communities — Hwy.

64 in Earle and Hwy. 77 in Jericho. And in both cities, the speed limit drops the minute motorists cross into the city limits.

Earle and Jericho typically station their officers right at the city limits.

That’s when motorists see the blue lights come on.

Allen said a lot of time those officers are shooting the radar and clocking those vehicles while they are still in the county on the state highway and not in the city limits, then pulling those motorists over.

“The radar shoots out there quite a ways,” Allen said. “The biggest complaint I get is they say they weren’t speeding in Jericho. They might have been going 60 or 61 on the highway then they either saw the police car or slowed down when they saw the sign.”

County Judge Woody Wheeless was one of those who got pulled over in Jericho last year. The speed limit on the highway is 55 miles per hour then drops to 45 in Jericho.

Wheeless said they clocked him before he crossed over in to Jericho when he was still on the highway.

“They said I was speeding when I came in to their city,” Wheeless said. “But they were shooting the radar when I was still on the state highway. And I did slow down when I got to Jericho.”

Speeding tickets netted Jericho $179,771, of which they were able to keep $89,885 in revenue. Earle collected $387,631 from speeding fines and kept $224,126.

But does that make them a speed trap as spelled out in the law?

According to Arkansas Code 12-8-402 through 404, a city is considered a speed trap if its revenue from traffic fines on the state highway exceeds 30 percent of the town’s total expenses, or if more than 50 percent of local misdemeanor tickets issued on a state highway are for people driving 10 mph or less than the posted speed limit.

A prosecuting attorney in Faulkner County recently found that Damascus, which is located about 20 miles north of Conway, was a speed trap and ordered its police department to stop patrolling U.S. 65.

Hwy. 65 is a major route for travel between Branson, Mo., Conway, and Greers Ferry.

According to the prosecutor, the Damascus police department had improperly abused its police power by writing tickets for the sole purpose of raising revenue for the city of 385 residents and not for public safety.

Allen said that is exactly what Earle and Jericho are doing.

“Jericho is THE speed trap of the county,” Allen said.

“They have a population under 200 and five or six officers and that’s what they are doing. They don’t answer calls. I would say 99.9 percent of what those officers do up there is work radar. They got $179,000 for a city of 180 or so? I would say under those guidelines they are a speed trap.”

In a statement to The Times, Jericho Mayor Carol Witt denied her city was a speed trap.

“Myself and my police chief instruct our officers to follow the law — period,” Witt said. “All our officers are radar certified.”

Although the numbers predate when he took over as mayor in March 2017, Earle Mayor Sherman Smith also denies that Earle is a speed trap designed to raise money.

“I’m not disputing the sheriff,” Smith said. “But I haven’t looked at it to see if it is or it isn’t. I do know this. We haven’t put any emphasis or told them to step it up and write tickets on that highway. And in my 27 years as mayor before that, I never did that.”

However, Smith said the number of speeding tickets seems to show that motorists are in fact speeding through Earle at an unsafe rate of speed.

While he doesn’t want Earle to be known as a speed trap, he does want his residents to be safe.

“I don’t want Earle to be known as a speed trap. But I don’t want people running through Earle at an unsafe speed making it unsafe for our people to get to the store or people on the other side of the highway who have to get home,” Smith said. “We want people to know when you come through Earle to slow down so we can make it safe. If they come through Earle at a safe speed they won’t have a problem. But if they are violating the law they are subject to being ticketed — just like any other city or town. So if somebody is speeding down the highway and it makes Earle unsafe, I don’t have a problem with them writing tickets.”

District Court Judge Fred Thorne said that while he is shocked at the amount of money Earle and Jericho are collecting from speeders, he hasn’t had any cause to warn them that they are writing too many tickets.

“That stunned me,” Thorne said. “I was surprised at the amount of money. I did not realize it was that much. But I handle it like any other court. I don’t say to them we are getting too many. Each of those towns has a city attorney who are both good prosecutors. They present the cases. The defendants come to court. They enter a plea. I listen to the facts and make a determination. I treat it just like any other court.”

Thorne added that doesn’t get many complaints from defendants who were ticketed in those two cities..

“I guess they do add up over the year,” Thorne said. “I get a few that come in and say I think they clocked me before the city limits. I don’t hear it that often. I hear it some, but not a whole lot. While I don’t disagree (that some towns use them to make money), I get a docket, the city attorney presents it, and I handle them like I do the others.”

Allen said it is hard to convince him that Earle and Jericho are writing tickets for anything other than money.

“With as much crime and shootings and drugs as they have in Earle I would think it would be a better use of their police to be out patrolling the neighborhoods instead of having them on radar,” Allen said. “And that’s all they basically do in Jericho because there’s not many people and not a lot of crime. Jericho is basically a traffic enforcement for money. These towns are doing it for the money, not safety. I told them they are just running a speed trap.

But they are just going to keep doing it. That’s the way they make their money.”

Wheeless said he doesn’t want Crittenden County to get a reputation as one big speed trap.

“That’s not what a police department is for,” Wheeless said. “We all agree we want our communities to be safe. But that doesn’t mean you stop every car coming through for speeding and give them a ticket. I think these department would do a lot better patrolling their neighborhoods than being on the highway. That’s just my opinion.”

By Mark Randall