I admittedly have a somewhat cynical perception of law enforcement. After being a traffic ticket attorney for as long as I have and having heard the stories from clients that I have, that may be somewhat of an accurate assessment. Don’t get me wrong; I am well aware that police officers perform a vital role in protecting society. Public safety is not an easy task, especially when a small segment of that public presents a danger to themselves and others. It can be a thankless and dangerous job, but yes, I do take issue with the latitude that cops have been given in compromising the civil liberties of many of the citizens that they are sworn to protect. It has been my experience that this happens most frequently when it comes to cops issuing traffic tickets, specifically speeding tickets. Speeding tickets piss off just about everyone except those who make a profit from them. What started out as a means to protect people has been turned into one major method that municipalities use to meet, or exceed, their budgetary concerns.
For as long as I have been representing people in traffic court, individual law enforcement agencies have denied that speeding ticket quotas are in place. After all, this is in violation of Florida state law, right? Well, tell that to the drivers who received roughly 12,000 traffic tickets in Waldo, Florida last year. These traffic tickets were issued on a short stretch of Hwy. 301 in a town with only just over 1,000 residents and one traffic light. The fines that were amassed totaled more than $400,000. One report stated that the cops in Waldo were instructed to write one traffic ticket an hour! The fact that the number of traffic tickets issued equals nearly equals the amount of hours each cop work indicates that scenario is very probable. That’s right – a town that had only seven police officers was averaging more than 1,700 speeding tickets that were being written by each officer per year.
Many people have known about these practices for years, so this probably comes as no surprise to anyone who has driven through Waldo or heard about the statistics pertaining to this issue. According to American Automobile Association (AAA), this tiny hamlet is known as one of the top two areas in the country for speed traps. The other town that tops AAA’s list is Lawtey, Florida which is less than 20 miles away. These two towns are so infamous for their speed traps that the citizens of one of the neighboring towns have posted signs forewarning of the impending speed traps. How notorious does a town have to be to have its neighbor rat them out?
This is not the only small Florida town that has been caught with its hand in the proverbial cookie jar where traffic ticket quotas are concerned. Earlier this year, Sheriff Gordon Smith of Bradford County was tasked with heading up the police department of Hampton after it was disbanded due to the Florida Joint State Auditing Committee finding it responsible for violating 31 state laws. Numerous town officials resigned in the wake of this investigation because, as with Waldo, they were suspected of stealing some of the funds created by traffic fines.
Last month, CBS covered this story on a national basis. At that time, they spoke with neighboring county Sheriff Gordon. During the interview, Sheriff Gordon was quoted as saying, “This creates a cash cow or this cash register justice.” (sic)
Smith continued on to say, “That’s legalized robbery, and we shouldn’t be doing that.” One of the ways that Waldo has gotten away with writing such an extensive amount of speeding tickets is the rapid succession of speed limit reductions that it has posted. On just a short section of Hwy. 301, the speed limit drops from 65 mph to 55 mph, then 45, and very quickly to 35. This abuse of power became so overwhelming that five of the town’s own police officers finally had enough and they began to complain. This led to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) investigation into these practices in which both Chief Mike Szabo and Cpl. Kenneth Smith were implicated. Initially, both men were suspended.
The FDLE investigation began in August as the result of improprieties on the part of former Chief Szabo. The situation escalated two weeks later when the officers stated that they were told to write 12 tickets a day. After the initial council meeting, several officers filed complaints with the Inspector General’s office, seeking safeguards as provided by the Florida Whistleblower’s Act. They felt they were left with few options when City Manager, Kim Worley, neglected to implement an investigation into their charges of traffic ticket quotas, mismanagement of evidence, and other concerns that they had brought to light.
“City manager Worley broke the trust of the concerned members and went straight to Chief Szabo,” the officers said in the complaint. “Chief Szabo then took a retaliatory stance against the members for approximately six months.”
Eventually, with such a large percentage of the town’s police officers filing complaints, the city council was forced to take action. This came on the heels of the resignations of the former police chief and the interim police chief. These resignations were submitted as the result of several investigations into the activities of the police force, only one of which was the presence of the illegal ticket quota racket.
According to an article in the Gainesville Sun, Worley stated that an audit by the FDLE determined that several computer and facility issues needed to be addressed at a cost that the small town could ill-afford. The discovery of these necessary “fixes” stem from the FDLE investigation that was kicked off by the officers who came forward. These same officers also stated that the evidence regarding these traffic tickets was not being stored correctly on these computers or at these facilities.
Through the implementation of these ticket quotas the town of Waldo to has been able to meet an estimated one-third to one-half of its budget. However, on September 30 Waldo’s city council voted 4-1 to disband its police department because, in spite of the fact that the FDLE investigation determined that these problems needed resolution, the council stated that the town cannot afford to incur these expenses.
Regrettably, the officers who were trying to do the right thing are now going to be out a job as of October 31. They are presently on paid administrative leave, but all will face unemployment if they can’t find different jobs by the end of the month. The town is currently being patrolled by one or two Alachua County Sheriff’s deputies. Although many residents were disgruntled about the traffic ticket quotas, they now have to face concerns about reaction time should a crime occur.
Generally, we focus on South Florida traffic tickets, but these blatant violations of Florida state law are so egregious that I felt they should be discussed. These are just three small Florida towns that have all engaged in the implementation of traffic ticket quotas. The next time that you feel like you may have been the victim of a traffic ticket quota, you will know that it is quite likely. If you find yourself with a speeding ticket or any other kind of traffic ticket, give us a call for a free consultation at 954-967-9888. Even though our offices are in South Florida, we can represent drivers from any of Florida’s 67 counties.