Video: Who gets the most speeding tickets?
Is a South Carolina police chief operating a speed trap, including on busy I-95, by asking his officers to write more tickets, or is he preventing more dangerous crimes?
That question arose when the Santee police chief, in a memo, called for his officers to “heavily increase your traffic enforcement” after ticketing declined during the last two years and in the first quarter of 2019.
The memo notes that Interstate 95 is “a great place to enforce the speed law or following too closely.”
Even with the recent drop, the police department appears to write more tickets than most towns of its size and population.
A memo written by a lieutenant at the direction of Chief Joseph Serrano shows that Santee officers wrote 4,227 citations in 2017 and 2,773 in 2018. Through the end of April, the department has written 737 citations this year, which, at that pace, would amount to around 2,200 for the year.
Even with the potential 2019 ticket low, 2,200 citations would be nearly double the tickets written by towns with thousands more people. The hundreds issued through the end of April were written by six Santee officers, according to the memo.
In a 2016 story about the relatively high number of tickets written in the town of Turbeville, The State reported that Camden, with a population of more than 7,000, wrote about 1,231 tickets from December 2014 to November 2015. Over the same period, police in West Columbia, population 16,060 at the time, gave out 1,345 citations. Santee has a population of 961 people.
The tickets written in Santee aren’t always uniform state tickets, which are used for violations of state traffic laws, according to Serrano, the police chief. His officers write municipal tickets for violations of town ordinances as well as state tickets.
Tickets from a town typically don’t add points on a driver’s license and aren’t reported to insurance companies. But the local citations often carry higher fines than state tickets.
Serrano said he didn’t know the proportion of municipal tickets to state uniform tickets his officers have written and he didn’t know how much money the department has raised writing tickets.
Some lawmakers tried to ban towns from writing their own municipal tickets in 2015. Rep. Jimmy Bales, D-Richland, introduced legislation to require that municipalities only write uniform state tickets and to cap fines at $200. The bill passed the House but got caught up in a Senate subcomittee, never becoming law. The issue is one Bales is still fiery about.
“I have a problem with them just writing tickets just to raise money,” he said.
And if a town is writing less tickets, that would indicate the years of higher tickets were effective, Bales said. Less tickets means more people are following the law.
“It seems to me like, as long as people stay within the speed limit and obey the law, you shouldn’t be writing tickets.”
Rep. Eddie Tallon, R-Spartanburg, of the Upstate feels similarly.
“I personally don’t like municipalities setting up . . . what you might refer to as speed traps and charging people with exorbitant fees,” Tallon said. “It’s circumventing the traffic rules we have in place.”
Serrano said that the request to increase traffic citations is about more than enforcing town laws.
“We got a lot of gun violence,” Serrano said. “We got a lot of gang activity... It’s been proved that upping your traffic violations, we get guns out of the community and drugs out.”
With a recent traffic stop, his department confiscated three assault rifles from teenagers, Serrano said.
A strip of I-95 is in the town’s limit, and patrolling that roadway accounts for some of the higher ticket numbers. Serrano said his department works with the state highway troopers to patrol that section of I-95.
Trooper Tyler Tidwell, a spokesperson for the area, said Santee officers are often closer than troopers and at times can get to incidents faster.
“They’re a big help to us,” Tidwell said about Santee Police.
The Santee police memo notes the interstate “has a constant flow of traffic through our town. This is a great place to enforce the speed law or following too closely.”
Despite ordering more tickets from his officers, Serrano said he wasn’t giving them a quota on how many citations to write. He said that practice “does nothing.”
The memo also doesn’t say anything about traffic stops being a good tool to find guns, drugs or decrease gang activity. It does list a number of traffic violations, such as turn signals infractions, improper lane use, and loud music.
“Do not get tunnel vision with a single infraction,” the memo says.
Still, the memo makes Tallon wonder “whether or not the chief is setting quotas for these guys.”
“That’s not what supposed to be done,” Tallon said. “We certainly don’t want the reputation of being a speed trap state.”