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Drivers take aim at Turbeville traffic law

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A class-action lawsuit filed in Clarendon County is asking the local Common Pleas Court to nullify Turbeville’s Town Traffic Ordinance and also return “millions of dollars to the tens of thousands of drivers” who have received tickets under the local law since its passage in 2003. Plaintiffs Rebecca Robbins and Marie Babayan claim they were both fined during separate stops in the small town with a population of a little more than 800 in excess of what state law allows. Robbins was stopped Oct. 28, 2014, for driving 60 mph in a 45 mph zone while traveling from Conway to Columbia. By state law, the violation carries a fine of about $135, but Robbins claims she was given a local ordinance ticket with a bond of $288. Similarly, Babayan, a Florida resident, was stopped Aug. 16, 2015, for driving 55 mph in a 35 mph zone, and received a $388 local ordinance ticket, which was eventually lowered to $188. Robbins appealed the ticket after her husband, South Carolina Progressive Network Director Brett Bursey, said he discovered there was no state statute cited on the ticket itself. That appeal is still pending. Turbeville passed its current Traffic Ordinance May 13, 2003, amending the ordinance Aug. 11, 2009. The ordinance states that “it shall be unlawful for any person to fail to obey the traffic ordinances of the Town of Turbeville and the state of South Carolina while operating a motor vehicle within the town limits.” It holds that anyone convicted of violating the ordinance will be fined no more than $500, plus court fees, or imprisoned for not more than 30 days. The plaintiffs argue in their complaint, filed in May, that Turbeville’s ordinance is null and void due to already existing state laws which regulate traffic on state highways. The Uniform Traffic Act provides that “the provisions shall be applicable and uniform throughout this state … and no local authority shall enact or enforce any ordinance, rule or regulation in conflict with the provisions of this chapter.” The act provides limitations on maximum and minimum speed limits, and provides the fines for various offenses, with a fine of $15-25 for speeding less than 10 mph, and a fine of $75 to $200 and no more than 30 days in jail for speeding more than 25 mph. The law also outlines points to be placed on an offender’s driver’s license, with less than 10 mph assessed two points; between 10 and 25 mph assessed four points; and more than 25 mph assessed six points. The plaintiffs argue that Turbeville’s Traffic Ordinance violates state law by imposing “more excessive fines” than called for by state law, and also that the town’s municipal court does not follow the point system. The plaintiffs also argue that Turbeville police issue tickets under the Traffic Ordinance for drivers violating other portions of the Uniform Traffic Act, like those who are stopped and found to be driving without a valid license. “Upon information and belief, the Police Defendants entice drivers to pay these unlawfully excessive fines by not assessing the points required under the Uniform Traffic Act or by not charging motorists with other traffic-related criminal offenses,” the complain states. The suit is not the first time Turbeville’s Traffic Ordinance has come under public scrutiny. Three years ago, two state officials asked the state Attorney General’s Office for an opinion on the practice, although they had varying reasons. Treasurer Curtis Loftis had noted the Treasury Office had seen a decrease in the amount of court fines and fees, and the state Court Administration Office suggested the “decline may be the result of jurisdictions writing traffic and other tickets under recently adopted local … ordinances rather than under the Uniform Traffic Act.” The end result, the office surmised, is that the fees “may not be reported and remitted to the Treasurer’s Office, but rather are retained by the local jurisdictions.” Loftis asked the Attorney General’s Office whether such local traffic ordinances were legal under state law, and what action might be taken to collect any unlawfully obtained fines from municipalities and counties.

At the same time, Rep. Jimmy C. Bales, D-Eastover, also asked the state’s highest prosecutor about the “legality of local jurisdictions issuing their own tickets and setting their own fines for speeding violations, as opposed to issuing a uniform traffic ticket for a violation under the Uniform Traffic Act.” In both opinions, the Attorney General’s Office concluded that the practice of local towns and municipalities enacting their own traffic ordinances is likely unlawful, particularly when the local laws compete with already existing state laws. The Loftis opinion cited other traffic-enforcement practices in Myrtle Beach which had been declared unlawful by the state Supreme Court. In that instance, Myrtle Beach had enacted a local law pertaining to motorcycle helmets, an issue already covered by existing state law. Cities like Hardeeville, McBee, South Congaree and West Columbia have been scrutinized previously for similar practices, with town safety ordinances ranging from the use of photo devices to catch speeders to local helmet laws like the one in Myrtle Beach. “There used to be lots of sheriff’s and police departments across the state who would develop their own civil fee structures,” said Jeff Moore, a former spokesman for the South Carolina Sheriffs’ Association, to The State newspaper. “But it doesn’t happen so much anymore.” Municipal Criminal Justice Academy Maj. Florence McCants said that municipalities must send $5 on each traffic citation to the State Treasurer’s Office to help pay for the academy. The Treasurer’s Office notes that from December 2014 to November 2015, Turbeville sent $12,215 to the academy, after issuing about 2,443 tickets in that year, or 203 tickets per month. According to The State newspaper, Camden, with a population of 7,085, sent $6,155, issuing about 1,231 tickets a year, or 103 tickets per month. About 75 percent of the town’s $1.4 million budget in 2013 came from traffic fines, according to financial statements. In the lawsuit filed in May, the plaintiffs allege that the town has been “unjustly enriched by excessive fines,” and asks for these fines to be returned to the “tens of thousands” of motorists stopped in Turbeville. Turbeville Police Chief David Jones declined to comment Monday on the town’s Traffic Ordinance, saying the town’s attorneys have advised employees not to discuss the suit. Turbeville Mayor Dwayne Howell similarly declined to speak on the suit, and said that Manning attorney William Johnson is representing the town. Jones told a TV station in 2013 that the town’s fines, which he noted were similar to other municipalities in the state, were intended to “shock the conscious” of drivers who could be endangering the safety of residents by speeding. “If you knew on the way down from Columbia, if you got stopped you were looking at fines of $288 or $388, and that was it, I guarantee you wouldn’t be so quick to push down on the accelerator pedal,” Jones said. Three Columbia-area law firms are representing the two plaintiffs, including Simmons Law Firm LLC and Bluestein, Nichols, Thompson and Delgado LLC, both of Columbia, and Jordan, Rauton and Scott LLC of Lexington. No court dates have been set in the suit, and the Town of Turbeville has not yet filed an answer with the Clarendon County Common Pleas Court, according to the public index. The State Newspaper contributed to this report.

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