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Florida Gothic: Motorists’ Hamlet Of Horrors

speed limit 55 sign against blue sky
photo by David Lofink

A sleepy Florida town of 477. Hundreds of thousands of dollars raised on speeding tickets alone. City records supposedly lost in a swamp.

As Florida State Senator Rob Bradley said, “It’s something out of a Southern Gothic novel. You can’t make this stuff up.”

Bradley was talking about Hampton, Fla., an 89-year-old city located off Route 301 between Jacksonville and Gainesville. Hampton may not make its 90th anniversary, however. Allegations of criminal behavior and mismanagement have led to an ultimatum: The city must right itself by the end of March or the state Legislature will vote to dissolve it.

The speeding tickets were the red flag that attracted a state audit, completed last month. Hampton’s police issued 12,698 speeding tickets between 2011 and 2012, and took in $419,624 in fines. But the audit also uncovered sloppy recordkeeping, full of irregularities and holes (water meter logbooks were the ones supposedly lost in the swamp, and pre-1999 records were said to have been lost in floods). There was talk of sloppy procedures and possible nepotism. Before the city annexed a tiny portion of U.S. 301, however, it seemed unlikely that Hampton’s struggles would reach beyond its own diminutive city limits.

But the temptation to fill city coffers from unsuspecting motorists, few of whom were likely to even know Hampton existed, proved powerful once it arrived. The police force was so aggressive that AAA put Hampton on its list of notorious speed traps, and the police force grew from one to 17, including some volunteers. As CNN observed, that is approximately one police officer per 25 residents.

State Rep. Charles Van Zant, who was ticketed passing through Hampton in 2011, said, “When I got my ticket, you couldn’t hardly pass by Hampton without getting a ticket. You can say that’s law enforcement, but no. That’s banking using the U.S. highway system.” Van Zant paid his ticket without complaint, though at least one Hampton resident has accused him of vindictively turning on the town. Van Zant denied this accusation.

The multiple indicators of waste, abuse and possible corruption make it clear that Hampton’s audit was sorely needed. But speed traps are not a problem limited to Florida. By setting up a system where police departments benefit directly from the fees motorists pay, such “banking” is not only encouraged; it becomes almost inevitable. Hampton Sherriff Gordon Smith observed that in Hampton, “It became ‘serve and collect’ instead of ‘serve and protect.’” And while state-level politicians in Florida expressed shock at the state of things in Hampton, the city is a small yet vivid example of a problem that continues to play out across the country.

The best way to stop tax collection in the guise of law enforcement is to require all traffic fines to be deposited in a state general fund. State legislators can then appropriate the money to whatever communities or causes they find most in need. Local law enforcement could then concentrate on actually keeping the public safe, which is the typical justification for aggressive highway enforcement.

In a town Hampton’s size, public safety is one of two responsibilities held by local government. (The other is managing the water supply.) Raising funds should not be the police’s concern. A town in rural Florida of fewer than 500 people did not need 17 police officers, some of whom did not truly deserve the title in the first place. But it could, and apparently did, certainly use them to squeeze money from hapless motorists who were just passing through.

What happened in Hampton may have differed in degree, but at the root it is the same thing that happens whenever cops are given a quota. These days, giving officers numbers to meet masquerades as police productivity. Until it doesn’t, we’re likely to see more situations like Hampton’s, even if not all of them are quite so extreme as to earn a starring role in a yet-to-be-written short story of Southern malfeasance.

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