State

Lawsuit against Turbeville’s alleged speed trap gains momentum

Nearly two dozen potential clients have contacted three law firms suing the town of Turbeville in Clarendon County, claiming the hamlet of 804 for years has operated an illegal speed trap.

Attorneys for the firms say they expect more potential clients to come forward to challenge Turbeville’s “town safety” ordinances, which police officers use to write local traffic tickets with fines much higher than those allowed by state law.

The ordinances have been on the town’s books for 13 years and have garnered Turbeville about $1 million a year, financial statements show.

On Monday, the three law firms, based in Columbia and Lexington, gave a copy of the lawsuit to the S.C. Attorney General’s Office, as required by state law when suing a municipality. The suit was first reported by The State Sunday.

“At present, we have filed a detailed class action complaint in the Clarendon County Court of Common Pleas, provided the Attorney General’s Office with a copy of the complaint, and are awaiting Turbeville’s answer,” said attorney John L. Warren III of Columbia’s Simmons Law Firm. “We ... look forward to a resolution of the class members’ claims in the judicial process.”

Efforts to reach Turbeville town administrator Rodney Johnson were unsuccessful. Town officials previously declined comment to The State on the advice of their attorneys.

Simmons Law Firm has joined Bluestein, Nichols, Thompson & Delgado in Columbia and Jordan, Rauton, and Scott in Lexington in the suit. They are responding to a number of inquiries from citizens ticketed in Turbeville and other jurisdictions, attorneys said.

The suit presently names two plaintiffs — one who had her ticket switched to a state citation after she hired an attorney to challenge the town citation, and another who challenged the town ticket and has refused to accept a state citation.

The three law firms have filed suit to stop the practice and force the town to repay the fines they say were collected illegally, attorneys have said. If successful, the lawsuit could deter other towns from trying to adopt the local-ticket model or continuing the practice.

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 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, Turbeville is also near the U.S. 378 exit off of Interstate 95, funneling even more tourists through the tiny town.

Turbeville, with a population of 804, wrote 2,443 tickets in 2015, according to the S.C. State Treasurer’s office, or an average of 203 tickets a month.

By contrast, West Columbia, with a population of 16,060, wrote 1,345 tickets that year, or 112 tickets a month.

The suit claims Turbeville has been “unjustly enriched” by writing so many tickets.

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