A Facebook post with thousands of shares warned drivers about a speed trap in Brownsboro. It started circulating in December, with allegations of the city using the alleged trap for revenue, not safety.
In Brownsboro, the speed changes from 70 to 65 to 55 to 45 and 35, all within 500 to 700 yards.
Tyler resident Aaron Manly Smith wrote the viral post after being pulled over one night in December 2017.
Drivers like Smith complain the signs are hard to dictate, because you can see multiple at once. Smith said they are also hard to see, with overhanging branches covering them and no street lights at night.
- “This is not a new subject. People in East Texas have known for years about tickets in Brownsboro.” - Gerald
- “My husband and my son have both gotten tickets here.” -- Jenn
- “This is where I got my only ticket of my adult life.” -- Shanna
According to the National Motorists Association, a speed trap is defined as this:
Wherever traffic enforcement is focused on extracting revenue from drivers instead of improving safety, made possible by speed limits posted below the prevailing flow of traffic.
The association keeps tabs on spots all over the U.S. If you look up Brownsboro, Highway 31 pops up multiple times.
CBS19 Investigates spoke with Brownsboro Police Chief Thomas Robertson who said officers are just doing their jobs.
"We don't hide. We sit in plain sight. We're not out to trap anybody. We're just out to do our job,” Chief Robertson said.
He said Brownsboro is small, and there’s not much else for police to do other than traffic stops. Still, he denied any intent to catch drivers speeding.
CBS19 filed an open records request and found out more than 12,000 tickets have been issued on Highway 31 since 2013. The city’s population is 1,080, according to the most recent census
In 2017, 2,057 tickets were issued. In 2016, 2,795 tickets were issued. In 2015, 3,266 tickets were issued. In 2014, 2,795 tickets were issued. In 2013, 2,917 tickets were issued.
With thousands of tickets issued, CBS19 wanted to know how one small department is making that happen.
Chief Robertson said at any given time, there are only four officers on duty, including himself.
"We don't intentionally want to pull anyone over,” Robertson said. “My officers, they sit in different places. They don't just sit in one place."
CBS19 checked that, too. Looking at ticket records kept by the city, more than half of the tickets are given by officer Ivan Medina. He gave 60 percent of the tickets in 2017, which breaks down to 1,224 tickets.
While Chief Robertson said Highway 31 is not a speed trap, he does admit there are some issues.
Robertson reached out to the Texas Department of Transportation (TXDOT) in 2010, requesting the spacing of speed signs be changed. He also requested a speed study be conducted.
"We actually passed an ordinance asking them to move the signs,” he said, agreeing the signs do cause problems for drivers, causing them to unintentionally speed.
CBS19 reached out to TXDOT to see if any changes were needed, and if a study was conducted.
"The way the result was, nothing was warranted. No changes to the speed limit were warranted. That was in 2010,” said Kathi White, TXDOT spokesperson.
White said the Brownsboro Police Department has not reached out again since 2010.
Revenue from tickets:
With thousands of tickets given each year, the question remained – how much money is the city making from these fines?
CBS19 looked through hand-written city budgets, and found out that more than one third of the city’s revenue comes from this speed trap, and that has been the trend for at least five years.
The city budgeted to make 47.5 percent of their annual revenue from the speed trap in 2017. They did fall a bit short, but over the last five years, they make an average of 37.2 percent from tickets given on Highway 31.
In 2015, they exceeded that, bringing in 47.8 percent.
Chief Robertson said there is no agenda, despite the city setting a target.
"Generating revenue. I've never encouraged that. All I've ever encouraged is getting out there, and work for the safety of the people,” he said.
Robertson said he’s never encouraged officers to give speeding ticket. He denies any intent to catch drivers speeding.
"We don't intentionally want to pull anyone over. My officers, they sit in different places. They don't just sit in one place."
A Texas law addressing speed traps was passed in 1975, and applies to towns with fewer than 5,000 people.
The idea is to discourage those towns from relying too much on traffic ticket fines for revenue.
Traffic fines exceeding 30 percent of the city’s previous year’s total general revenues must be paid to the state. If a town takes in $100,000 this year, it can only keep $30,000 in traffic fines next year, plus $1 for each ticket over the cap.
CBS19 reached out to the Texas Comptroller’s Office to see if Brownsboro is paying up.
A spokesperson said there are no records of the city paying them anything, despite traffic fines exceeding 30 percent of its budget.
The city has also never been audited.
According to the comptroller’s office, a city isn’t audited unless someone makes a complaint, and so far, nobody has called in about Brownsboro.
“We don’t do this to generate revenue. We do this because we’re worried about the people in this town,” Robertson said.
State speed trap laws:
In Arkansas, there is a state speed trap law on books.
The law limits the percentage of a city or town’s revenue that can come from traffic stops. The town of Damascus, with just more than 300 people, was banned from issuing speeding tickets in May of 2017 for breaking the law.
Officers in Damascus issued an average of 1,500 tickets a year on a small stretch of highway.
U.S. Attorney Cody Hiland said that was a red flag.
"Anything that we do that undermines the public's trust in us to carry out public safety, and our motivation, I think we have to be concerned about that,” Hiland said in a FaceTime interview with CBS19.
Looking at tickets in Damascus from 2014 and 2015, Hiland found more than 30 percent of the previous year's budget came from fines and costs from traffic offenses, which, by definition in the state law, is an abuse of police power.
"If the number of moving violations exceed 30% of the last year's budget, for the city, that is per say, a speed trap,” he said.
As for Texas, there are no statewide laws on the books that will penalize a city for speed traps. Even if there was, Chief Robertson said his department is doing nothing wrong.
“You know, if you look up the definition of a trap, it’s an apparatus. Something that is laid in wake for somebody,” Robertson said. “We don’t hide. We’re not out to trap anybody, we’re just out to do our job.”
If you suspect a city is targeting drivers for revenue, the Texas Comptroller’s Office wants to hear from you. Give them a call at 1-888-334-4112.