The Birmingham News recently investigated the tiny town of Brookside, Alabama, a place "with no traffic lights and one retail store [that] collected $487 in fines and forfeitures for every man, woman and child." Income from fines and forfeitures comprised a whopping 49 percent of the town's budget. Lawsuits allege that Brookside police officers made up charges to soak vehicle owners for thousands of dollars in fines.
Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth is asking for an official state audit of the town and its police force. That doesn't bode well for Brookside officials, in light of some recent history and similar stories across the country from decades past.
In 2017, the News reported that Castleberry, Alabama, with a population of about 500, was generating revenue through what amounted to highway robbery. More than a dozen lawsuits claimed that Castleberry officers illegally arrested and searched motorists, seizing their cash and cars without filing charges or even paperwork. In the ensuing scandal, Castleberry trimmed its police force down to just two part-time police officers.
Speed-trap towns—that is, small towns that raise revenue through unreasonably aggressive and sometimes illegal traffic enforcement—are a scam nearly as old as the automobile itself.
"The 'speed trap' industry as practised by rural constables shows little abatement in this country and some concerted movement must be made by automobilists as a class if they would secure immunity from annoyance and extortion as individuals," the New York Sun opined in 1907. As early as 1908, the Automobile Club of America published lists of towns known for speed traps and rigid traffic enforcement.
Over the decades, speed-trap towns have popped up, gained notoriety, and in some cases stopped existing as a consequence of their thieving. Reviewing newspaper archives, Reason found 10 U.S. towns with especially corrupt traffic enforcement. Most ended up disbanding their police departments, and some disincorporated entirely.
Before Brookside and Castleberry, there was Wilmer, Alabama, a small town of about 500 situated near Mobile. In the early 1990s, Wilmer controlled eight miles of U.S. 98, a popular route for drivers coming from Mississippi's dry counties to stock up on booze. In the short stretch of U.S. 98 that Wilmer policed, the speed limit changed six times.
Wilmer gained such an obnoxious reputation that one local business, Snuffy Smith's antique store—which also sold liquor, pigs' feet, ammunition, and bait—put up a 12-foot sign that read, "MOTORISTS BEWARE. SPEED TRAP NEXT 6 MILES."
The local district attorney investigated Wilmer in 1992 and concluded that the town had been running a speed trap for the past decade to keep itself afloat. Several former Wilmer police officers said the mayor and town council gave them ticket quotas to meet. The district attorney warned Wilmer to knock it off or he would seek a court order against the town.
Meanwhile, local residents had grown so fed up with the town's lousy reputation and financial quagmire—it didn't have the tax base to survive without the speed trap—that they decided to exercise a nuclear option in Alabama's state code that allows towns with populations under 1,100 to disincorporate voluntarily.
The town held two votes to dissolve itself. The first attempt was thrown out in court, but the second vote stuck. Residents successfully voted 184–73 in favor of disincorporation. Wilmer wiped itself off the map in 1993.
Alas, dissolving a town doesn't make every town problem go away. Wilmer had around 3,200 outstanding traffic tickets when it dissolved. Because no one knew what to do with the many checks and money orders that later arrived to settle those tickets, they just sat around in a Mobile courthouse. When drivers who'd been nabbed by Wilmer's speed trap went to renew their licenses, some of them as far away as New Mexico and New Jersey, they found out they couldn't because of their debt to a nonexistent town.
Snuffy Smith's warning stayed up until at least 2009. The speed trap was long gone, but the sign, like Ozymandias, stood as a warning to passing mayors with grand dreams.
In 1975, Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley declared that the small hamlet of Fruithurst, near the Georgia border, was "the worst speed trap in the nation" and "a terrible blot on the good name of Alabama."
Baxley and the Alabama Motorists Association had started digging into allegations that Fruithurst was running a rapacious speed trap (and also illegally searching vehicles). The hamlet of 250 souls employed six police officers. Before the state put the kibosh on them, Fruithurst cops were collecting $200,000 a year from the wallets of passing motorists. The town was issuing more tickets than Montgomery and about half as many as Birmingham, population roughly 290,000.
As the Alabama Journal detailed in 1975, one case involved a woman arrested for traveling 58 in a 55-mph zone. She was also charged with transporting untaxed liquor—a half-empty miniature bottle of liqueur in her purse. Her arrest was both an abuse of law enforcement powers and a mockery of the very idea of legitimate traffic safety enforcement.
Under scrutiny, Fruithurst abolished its police force. Baxley filed a lawsuit seeking an injunction and took the unusual step of setting up a public defender's office in a trailer next to Fruithurst's town hall, promising representation for anyone ensnared by the speed trap. Fruithurst settled the lawsuit by agreeing not to patrol the highway anymore.
In the 1990s, the Florida town of Hampton annexed a small portion of U.S. 301. If you looked at Hampton's boundaries on a map, you would have seen a comically thin strip of land extending west from town until it met the highway, where it turned north for a quarter of a mile. It was like a gerrymandered legislative district, except Hampton was scooping up traffic revenue rather than votes.
Many speed-trap towns defend their aggressive traffic enforcement on ostensible public safety grounds. But Hampton could not even make that sort of claim, since the highway was a mile away. Yes, the scheme was brazen, but two other nearby towns along the same highway, Waldo and Lawtey, had found dependable revenue streams doing the same. (More on that below.) In 2011, according to CNN, Hampton issued 9,515 speeding tickets and brought in more than $253,000.
Things started to unravel in 2012, when AAA erected billboards on U.S. 301 warning of the speed trap and the local sheriff grew increasingly suspicious of Hampton's inept officers.
A 2014 audit of Hampton's books reported rampant nepotism, misuse of public property, poor bookkeeping, and missing funds. For example, $132,000 was charged to a town account at a convenience store across the street from town hall. The primary function of the government of this town of 477 souls appeared to be to support the lifestyles of the police department's 19 officers.
When CNN interviewed the mayor about Hampton's woes, he was sitting in jail on charges of selling an oxycodone pill to an undercover cop.
Two disgusted Florida state lawmakers, one of whom had received a speeding ticket from Hampton's finest, threatened to introduce a bill to revoke the town's charter. Hampton only avoided the wrath of the state legislature by disbanding its police force, de-annexing the strip of highway, and accepting the -resignation of every public official who held office when the scandal broke.
Unlike most of the cases featured here, the speed trap in Waldo, Florida, was brought down not by outside pressure but from the inside.
The town, just seven miles south of Hampton, was a well-known speed trap. The speed limit changed six times on the stretch of highway running through Waldo, and AAA erected billboards warning motorists about it. About half of Waldo's $1 million in annual revenue in 2013 came from traffic fines.
Then, in 2014, the police chief was suspended after the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) launched an investigation into the town's ticket-writing practices. Shortly after that, five Waldo police officers went before the town council and accused the chief of forcing them to meet illegal ticket quotas. The interim chief was accused of mishandling evidence.
After the FDLE gave the small town the estimated bill to get its evidence storage facilities up to standards, the council decided to cut its losses and voted 4–1 to disband its police force.
The Tampa Bay Times reported that one of the officers who blew the whistle unpinned his badge after the vote. "It's what was right," he told the newspaper. "A lot of people complain about cops not stepping across the blue line, and this is a prime example, because you have to worry about this kind of stuff."
NEW ROME, OHIO
The village of New Rome, Ohio, was all of three blocks long and three blocks wide, but what it lacked in size it more than made up for in traffic enforcement. During the 1990s and early 2000s, it ran one of Ohio's most hated speed traps.
Columbus Monthly reported that in the year 2000, New Rome generated nearly $362,000 from traffic enforcement on a 1,000-foot stretch of highway. Its revenue that year was $380,000.
New Rome's dozen or so police officers (out of a -dwindling population of about 60) would likely still be plying their -nefarious trade today if it hadn't been so obvious that money was -disappearing from village coffers. Auditors began noting bookkeeping irregularities in the 1990s. Records went missing or were destroyed. Large sums of money couldn't be accounted for. There was a string of indictments for embezzlement and public corruption.
In 2002, state auditor Jim Petro investigated New Rome and declared that it was "the per-capita corruption capital of Ohio." Petro found that $120,000 had simply disappeared from New Rome over the past decade.
No one on the village council had been elected by the actual voters since 1979. The village council members and the mayor, most of whom were related, didn't bother to file for elections and just appointed each other as needed when their terms expired, citing the small population and lack of interest.
Anger toward the tiny village and its police force led to a -dedicated website for haters (newromesucks.com); an unflattering 2003 Car and Driver profile ("a chickenshit town, a little police state"); and frequent protests outside the double-wide trailer that functioned as the village hall, court, and police station.
Amid all of this, an outsider candidate swept into the mayor's office by launching his candidacy in secret to avoid tipping off the old guard. The mayor didn't even bother filing to run, so the challenger waited until the deadline and filed. The mayor and his cronies also failed to challenge his petition, so he appeared on the ballot uncontested; he won the race 8–0. But the village council refused to recognize his victory, or to even hand over the gavel, and tried to appoint its own mayor. The local county prosecutor certified the election and decided that only one of the council members was legitimately holding a seat. However, the lone remaining member simply reappointed the others back to the council after they resigned, allowing them to continue operating as a rump government.
In 2003, the new mayor put the question to voters of whether New Rome should continue to exist or be absorbed into its closest neighbor. The town voted 21–11 to stay alive, but the state legislature had other plans.
That year, Ohio lawmakers passed a bill specifically targeting New Rome that allowed the state to dissolve small towns in fiscal distress with populations under 150. Under that law, the New Roman Empire was finally disincorporated in 2004. Several dozen of the village's critics held a mock funeral to celebrate its demise, complete with a coffin and pallbearers.
ST. GEORGE, MISSOURI
The postage-stamp town of St. George, Missouri, covered just 0.2 square miles and had a population of about 1,300 people, but it generated a surprisingly large number of scandals.
It was mostly known as a petty speed trap. But there was also one time in 1984 when its police chief was convicted for conspiracy in the car bombing of a St. Louis mobster. Or the time in 2007 when a St. George cop was caught on camera berating and intimidating a 20-year-old man, Brett Darrow, and threatening to fabricate charges against him. After Darrow asserted his constitutional rights and didn't show the expected amount of subservience, the officer allegedly pinned him against his car and screamed in his face, "Do you want to go to jail for some fucking reason I come up with?"
The Darrow video went viral in an early example of citizen footage of police abuse gaining national media attention. The St. George police chief fired the abusive officer, and the bad publicity led to the town's downfall. (The police chief, -newspapers reported, had been previously suspended at a different department for sexually harassing a 17-year-old girl.)
St. George disbanded its police force in 2008, handing over traffic enforcement to the county sheriff's office. In 2011, a local alderman, Carmen Wilkerson, ousted the incumbent mayor in a write-in campaign. Wilkerson ran on a platform of becoming St. George's last mayor; she and a slate of other candidates wanted to dissolve the town, especially after learning that the incumbent mayor was plotting to revive the old speed trap by contracting with another town's police force. Wilkerson's campaign slogan? "Save Us From Our City."
With residents facing steep tax hikes—the town was deep in debt even before the speed trap ended—St. George voted 345–128 in favor of dissolution in November 2011. The St. Louis Beacon reported that Wilkerson hugged allies and friends as the results rolled in, "jumping up and down and then teary-eyed," surely one of the only politicians in history thrilled to be voted out of office.
In the 2000s, the town of Maricopa gained a reputation for targeting drivers, especially farm workers, in the hopes that they'd be undocumented immigrants, thus allowing the small police department to impound their cars without much fuss.
Jennie Pasquarella, an attorney with the ACLU of Southern California, told the Los Angeles Times that Maricopa "has been a shining example of impoundments gone wrong. They're essentially creating a racket to steal people's cars."
When drivers began avoiding the town, one gas station owner put up a large sign at his station: "Stop the Maricopa Police Dept. Out of Control Traffic Tactics. Your Voices Have the Real Power! Speak Up & Tell Them to Stop!"
A Kern County grand jury report accused Maricopa police of targeting Latino motorists and seizing vehicles from undocumented immigrants. The grand jury report urged the debt-ridden town to get rid of its police department and then get rid of itself through disincorporation.
Maricopa chose the former, disbanding its police force in 2012 and contracting with the county for law enforcement.
In a similar California case, the town of Maywood outsourced its law enforcement in 2010, a year after the state attorney general released a scathing report on its police force. The report found lax oversight, unchecked and excessive force, sexual assaults, illegal searches and arrests, and an abusive vehicle checkpoint and impound program that Maywood relied on for revenue.
MACKS CREEK, MISSOURI
If a small town has a law named after it, it's probably not for a good reason. Such was the case with Macks Creek, an obnoxious speed trap that inspired the Missouri legislature to pass the Macks Creek Law in 1995. This bill capped the percentage of annual revenue that towns could generate from ticket fines at 45 percent.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that, at Macks Creek's peak, the town of 472 was issuing 2,900 tickets a year. Municipal court fines accounted for three-fourths of its revenue.
Two years later, a state audit found sloppy bookkeeping, financial mismanagement, and evidence that Macks Creek police had simply switched to issuing parking tickets rather than moving violations, thereby evading the letter (though certainly not the spirit) of the Macks Creek Law. Most town officials resigned in the wake of the report. Three years later, Macks Creek declared bankruptcy.
By 2005, no one could really figure out why it was still a town. Two proposals were put on the ballot: one to rename the town (as Baghdad), the other to disincorporate. Both failed. The town lingered on until 2012, when residents voted again and this time managed to dissolve Macks Creek for good.
PATTON VILLAGE, TEXAS
Patton Village, Texas, neither disbanded its police force nor disincorporated itself. But the place still warrants special -mention.
The town annexed a mile-long strip of U.S. 59 in 1971 and promptly embraced highway robbery, deploying unmarked police cars and radar guns. It became such a well-known Texas speed trap that a state representative introduced and successfully passed legislation in 1989 to cap the money that small towns could generate from traffic enforcement at 30 percent of their total budgets. During its peak, Patton Village raised more than 90 percent of its annual revenue from traffic tickets.
The Patton Village police chief, David Broussard, was so aggrieved by that legislation that he went on a 12-day hunger strike to try to persuade the governor to veto it, subsisting only on "coffee, water and an occasional beer."
"I don't know what more I could do to open people's eyes," Broussard said, according to United Press International. "Someone has got to take a stand for poor folks."
Thankfully, Broussard's stunt did not sway the governor, who signed the legislation.
Ludowici, Georgia, was one of the first speed-trap towns to gain national notoriety. Situated on the U.S. 301 route to Jacksonville, it became infamous in the 1950s for extorting tourists on their way to Florida.
Ludowici was a genuine innovator in the field. In addition to running a typical speed trap, the town installed a stoplight that suddenly changed from green to red with no yellow in between. According to varying accounts, the light was controlled by an alert observer holding a remote switch while stationed in a barber shop or a bus station. A Ludowici police officer was parked at the intersection to collect on-the-spot fines from drivers who ran the light.
These traps operated alongside other local scams, such as "clip joints," where tourists could lighten their wallets by playing rigged games of chance. Gas station attendants were also known to sabotage cars, making work for co-conspirator mechanics who charged a hefty price.
When you scam thousands of tourists a year, word tends to get around. Time ran features on Ludowici in 1959 (a "jerkwater traffic trap") and 1970 (a "malignant exception to progress"). The bad publicity—it was poor form, after all, to fleece Yankees before they got to Florida—led three consecutive Georgia governors to try to end Ludowici's two-bit racket.
In 1963, Gov. Carl Sanders temporarily suspended police arrest powers in Long County, which included Ludowici, because of endemic corruption. In 1970, Gov. Lester Maddox posted two billboards outside Ludowici warning of the speed trap and clip joints. Maddox also threatened to bring in the National Guard while hinting at further state retaliation. "There's a bridge just outside of town," he noted with the tender concern of a mafia boss. "I'll talk to the Highway Department, but it could be that the bridge needs repairing and will have to be closed for 18 months or so."
In the end, Ludowici was brought down not by Maddox, but by Interstate 95. Tourists no longer had to run a gauntlet of cops and flim-flam men to reach Florida's sunnier climes, and the town faded into well-deserved obscurity.
When Time profiled Ludowici's foibles in 1970, it declared that speed-trap towns were "now largely and mercifully extinct." Unfortunately, the obituary was premature; speed traps have proven to be a durably attractive swindle for unscrupulous police departments, despite numerous state laws standing in the way.
The good news is that speed traps are a terrible business strategy in the long term. So let the stories above serve as cautionary tales for any municipality looking greedily at a busy stretch of highway. Like customers avoiding a business with a bad reputation, motorists eventually learn to shun such places whenever possible. Before too long, pesky journalists and state investigators start poking around. If you're not careful, you just might not have a town anymore.