For years, motorists traveling down busy U.S. 378 to Myrtle Beach from the Midlands have heard this advice: Don’t speed through Turbeville.
Now, a class-action suit has been filed, seeking to force the tiny Clarendon County town to nullify its “town safety” ordinance. That ordinance allows Turbeville to write traffic tickets with higher fines than state traffic tickets and keep the money from the citations.
The suit also demands the town return millions of dollars to the tens of thousands of drivers who have received municipal tickets since the local ordinance was passed in 2003.
Town financial statements included in the civil suit, filed in state court, show the hamlet of 804 has raked in about $1 million a year in traffic fines for 13 years, writing more tickets than cities that are 20 times bigger.
It is a revenue windfall that critics say is not only excessive but illegal.
“It’s stealing,” said state Rep. Jimmy Bales, D-Richland, who unsuccessfully has introduced legislation to block the practice and even advocated erecting “speed trap” warning signs outside Turbeville’s town limits.
“It’s illegal,” said Bales. “But nobody has ever taken them to court.”
Now, three law firms have filed suit to stop the practice and force the town to repay the fines they say were collected illegally.
If successful, the lawsuit could deter other towns from trying to adopt the local-ticket model or continuing the practice.
In the past, many S.C. towns have been scrutinized for their traffic-enforcement practices, including Hardeeville, Myrtle Beach, McBee, South Congaree and West Columbia, which still has a town-safety ordinance on its books but doesn’t enforce it.
Those cities have enacted town-safety ordinances ranging from the use of photo devices to catch speeders to local helmet laws. However, the towns dropped the local laws after they were questioned about them.
“There used to be lots of sheriff’s and police departments across the state who would develop their own civil fee structures,” said Jeff Moore, a former spokesman for the S.C. Sheriffs’ Association. “But it doesn’t happen so much anymore.”
Local tickets aren’t reported to the state Department of Motor Vehicles or drivers’ insurance companies
In Turbeville, the fines levied by the town for driving violations often are much higher than typical state traffic fines.
But the violations – which could result in points against a driver’s record, increasing their insurance costs, if they were state tickets – are not reported to the state Department of Motor Vehicles – and thus the driver’s insurance company. As a result, drivers – looking to avoid points and higher insurance costs – tend to pay the fines without question.
If a driver does challenge the ticket – which can carry fines of up to $500 or 30 days in jail – Turbeville’s single town magistrate, hired by the town council, converts it to a state citation, lowering the possibility that the town ordinance will be challenged, the suit claims.
“Turbeville has either altered the citation to a valid state traffic ticket or dismissed the charge to avoid judicial reviews,” said John Warren, of Columbia’s Simmons Law Firm.
The firm has joined Bluestein, Nichols, Thompson & Delgado in Columbia and Jordan, Rauton & Scott in Lexington in filing the suit, expecting heavy public interest and lengthy appeals, Warren said.
The Turbeville violations are not even called speeding tickets.
The town’s ordinance doesn’t list speeding as a crime. Instead, tickets are issued for “careless operation” of a vehicle that endangers public safety. The officer simply writes in, say, “55/35” to indicate to the magistrate that the defendant was driving 20 miles an hour over the speed limit.
‘They come back crying’
Municipalities must levy and remit a $5 fee on each traffic citation they issueto the state treasurer’s office to help pay for the Municipal Criminal Justice Academy, according to Maj. Florence McCants, academy spokeswoman.
According to S.C. State Treasurer’s records, from December 2014 to November 2015:
▪ Turbeville, with a population of 804, according to the U.S Census Bureau, remitted $12,215 to the academy, which translates to 2,443 tickets a year, or an average of 203 tickets a month.
▪ Camden, with a population of 7,085, remitted $6,155. That is 1,231 tickets a year, an average of 103 a month.
▪ West Columbia, with a population of 16,060, remitted $6,725, which is 1,345 tickets a year, or 112 tickets a month.
For the four months from May through August – prime beach time – Turbeville’s monthly average of tickets jumps to 245. That’s more than one ticket – either a local traffic ordinance citation or a state traffic ticket – for every Turbeville resident during the vacation season.
Turbeville is on U.S. 378, a major route for tourists headed to Myrtle Beach from Columbia and the Midlands. Covering only 1.3 square miles and originally called Puddin’ Swamp, Turbeville is also near the U.S. 378 exit off of Interstate 95, funneling even more tourists through the tiny town.
Bales said he receives numerous complaints about the town’s traffic citations each summer from constituents in his Lower Richland district.
“It ruins people’s vacations,” he said. “They come back crying.”
In 2013, 75 percent of Turbeville’s $1.4 million budget was raised through traffic fines, according to town financial statements. Efforts to receive more recent financial statements were unsuccessful.
The town has 10 full-time employees, including a police chief and three police officers, according to town clerk Margie Edge.
The town’s 2013 budget said it had revenues of $1.1 million from its public safety department and spent $1 million on law enforcement to ensure the safety of its 818 residents that year. That comes to about $1,250 for every man, woman and child in Turbeville.
About $1,250 The amount spent annually on public safety for every man, woman and child in Turbeville
By contrast Columbia, with an $18 million-a-year police budget, spends about $130 a resident.
The suit claims Turbeville has been “unjustly enriched” by writing so many tickets.
Additionally, the town writes an inordinate number of warning tickets, according the S.C. Department of Public Safety's Public Contact Report.
Turbeville officers wrote more than 1,000 warning tickets in 42 months between 2007 and 2011, the last year the town reported its contacts. That’s 45.6 warning tickets for every 100 people of driving age in the town.
By comparison, South Carolina sheriffs’ deputies wrote an average of 3.35 warning tickets per 100 citizens in 2015, according to the public safety data.
On the advice of the town’s attorneys, Turbeville administrator Rodney Johnson declined to comment on his town’s ticket-writing practices.
However, in 2013, Turbeville police chief David Jones said the fines were intended to “shock the conscience” of drivers who could be endangering the safety of residents by speeding.
“If you knew on the way down from Columbia, if you got stopped you were looking at fines of $288 or $388 and that was it, I guarantee you wouldn’t be so quick to push down on the accelerator pedal,” he told a television station at the time.
The town’s ordinance states: “It shall be unlawful for any person to operate any vehicle without care, caution and full regard for the safety of persons or property. Any person failing so to do shall be guilty of the Town Traffic Ordinance. The operation of any vehicle when the same or any of its appliances is not in proper or safe condition shall be prima facie evidence of the violation of the Town Traffic Ordinance.”
Local law is intended to ‘shock the conscious’ of drivers.
– Turbeville Police Chief David Jones
The three Midlands law firms are representing two clients who have received tickets. More clients likely will come forward after the suit is made public, attorneys said.
Neither of the plaintiffs in the case – Rebecca Robbins or Marie Babayan – would comment upon the advice of their attorneys. But S.C. Progressive Network director Brett Bursey, Robbins’ husband, called Turbeville’s practices “highway robbery.”
On Oct. 28, 2014, Robbins was traveling from Conway to Columbia when she was clocked driving 60 miles a hour in a 45 mph zone – a violation that would carry a state fine of about $135. Robbins was given a local ordinance ticket carrying a bond of $288.
Like many other people, Bursey said he was ready to mail in the $288 fine, avoiding a trip to Turbeville, when he noted there wasn’t a state statute cited on the ticket. After Googling “Turbeville speed trap,” Bursey read there had been opinions suggesting the ordinance violated state law but never had been challenged.
In fact, the internet is filled with posts about speeding in the small town.
“They know this is illegal,” Bursey said. “But the officers act as if they are doing you a favor to write you a town ticket.”
Appearance of a conflict
In 2013, Jean Toal, then-chief justice of the S.C. Supreme Court, sent a letter to S.C. Criminal Justice Academy director Hubert F. Harrell saying the practice of towns and cities writing “careless operation” tickets under municipal ordinances carrying higher fines “could possibly run afoul of the authority delegated to them under the Home Rule Act.”
However, Toal predicted a challenge to the local tickets was unlikely because of the “benefits” that defendants are told they are receiving – no points on their driver’s license and no effect on their insurance rates.
However, Babayan of Bradenton, Fla., retained an attorney after she received a $388 ticket on Aug. 16, 2015, for driving 55 miles an hour in a 35 mph speed zone. The municipal magistrate converted the ticket to a state violation, and Babayan paid a $188 fine.
Robbins’ appeal of her ticket still is pending.
‘They usually keep the money.’
– Jeff Moore, retired S.C. Sheriffs’ Association spokesman
Two attorney general’s opinions in 2006 and 2013 echo Toal’s concerns that the town ordinance is illegal.
“I appears that there would be a conflict between the ... ordinance and the State law prohibiting speeding in that there would be no criminal violations tracked or points assessed against the driver but, instead, there would be a civil penalty imposed. As a result ... such a speeding ordinance would not be authorized,” the 2006 opinion stated.
The civil suit could be the case that sets precedent for future lawsuits, Bursey said.
“The whole intent is to prevent not just Turbeville, but every other municipality from doing this,” Bursey said. “We just don’t know who they are.”
In the past, municipalities “back down and stop the practice” before they draw too much scrutiny, said Moore, the retired sheriff’s spokesman.
“But,” he said, “they usually keep the money.”
Traffic tickets written each year
The town of Turbeville writes a large number of tickets each year compared with other municipalities. A comparison by population:
Turbeville, population 804: 2,443 tickets
Camden, population 7,085: 1,231 tickets
West Columbia, population 16,060: 1,345 tickets