Oh Robeline, Why Can’t I Drive Through?

What does it say when a retired sheriff, now legislator, brings a bill to get official state highway signs branding a village in his district as a “Speed Trap”?

That’s what HB 457, authored by Rep. Frank Howard (R-Many) would do for the Natchitoches Parish community of Robeline.

“Robeline is a speed trap,” Rep. Howard told the House Transportation Committee Monday. “Now, I don’t judge whether the tickets they give out are valid or not. I just know they’re really aggressive at giving them out. I constantly get complaints about it from the tourism people in Natchitoches, Sabine, and Vernon parishes.”

“I hear about it, too,” said Rep.Terry Brown (I-Colfax). “We invite people to come and spend money in our state, and this is an embarassment! I was in the airport in Chicago, and a couple, hearing I was from Louisiana, asked me if it was ‘safe’ to travel through Robeline, because they had read about it on the internet.”

Nodding in agreement, Howard responded, “They’ve got a population of 170-some people, yet they collected more than half-a-million dollars last year from traffic fines!”

Located where LA-120 crosses LA-6 — the main highway leading from I-49 to Toledo Bend lake — Robeline gets a substantial amount of logging and gas-drilling commercial traffic, along with a steady stream of RVs and SUVs pulling trailers and boats.

“You’ve tried to work with town officials on this?” asked Rep. Ed Larvadain (D-Alexandria).

“Of course,” Howard replied. “They’ll come and say ‘Oh, we’re going to try and clean this up.’ They’ve promised that for six years now, that I know of. With this bill, then, we’re going to try and help them clean it up!.”

“I get where you’re coming from,” Lavardain said, with a chuckle in response “Over in Rapides Parish, I have to deal with the ‘kingdom of Woodworth’.”

Billboard put up in 2016, along US-165 south of Alexandria.

Although the towns of Woodworth, Washington, Fenton, Golden Meadow, and Krotz Springs are frequently mentioned as being some of the state’s most notorious speed traps, this bill is for signage for Robeline alone. The village’s distinction as a leader for the title of “State Speed Trap Champion” has been documented for more than a dozen years.

In 2006, the Legislature requested a performance audit of Louisiana’s municipalities, to “study excessive speed limit enforcement.” That report, dated June 6, 2007, showed the Franklin Parish village of Baskin as generating the largest percentage of its total revenue from traffic fines – 87.41%. Robeline was number two then, at 85.73%. They’ve retained those rankings, until the most recently ended fiscal year. For FY 2018, which ended last June 30th, Robeline surged ahead of Baskin, collecting a total of $569,319 in fines. As the annual financial statement shows, that’s an increase of $267,000 in traffic fines over the previous year.

Indeed, that’s confirmed by the village’s annual financial reports, on file with the Louisiana Legislative Auditor. In fiscal year 2018, Robeline received $569,319 in “fines”, an increase of $267,000 over the previous year, and constituted 84.46% of Robeline’s FY 2018 total revenue. It’s the equivalent of $3271.94 for each man, woman and child residing in Robeline.

Baskin still collected a higher percentage of revenue from fines in FY 2018 – 86.65% – but the total amount was only $360,235, or the per capita (population 254, versus Robeline’s 174) equivalent of just $1418.24.

Maybe Robeline’s surge in the total dollar amount of fines collected last year can be attributed to the village’s two newest police cars – a pair of 2017 Dodge Chargers they are leasing. That’s noted in the latest financial statement as the village’s only major expense, other than the salary of the mayor, and the salary of the police chief.

Screenshot of Village of Robeline official Facebook page. Photo is what is left of the town’s abandoned school.

Both of those officials came to the capitol to testify on HB 457, and neither seemed to consider the ticketing or fines to be in any way problematic. However, neither could – or would – give accurate, current numbers for tickets written, or the revenue those tickets generate.

“In 2016, DOTD says our average traffic count was 7411 vehicles per day, but we wrote just 1127 citations total, for the entire year,” Robeline Police Chief Gordon O’Con testified. “Those weren’t all speeding violations, in fact, very few were. We don’t issue tickets for less than 12 miles per hour over the posted speed limit. We give more tickets for expired stickers, expired license plates, not wearing a seatbelt.”

In 2009, in an effort to limit or reduce “speed traps”, state lawmakers passed a law requiring local law enforcement hand over to the state Highway Safety Commission, any and all fines extracted from speeding tickets issued for driving less than ten miles an hour over the posted speed limit. It appears Robeline’s officers, endeavoring to avoid that problem, offer speeding motorists “a break”, writing the ticket for a seatbelt violation, instead.

Rep. Harvey LeBas (D-Ville Platte) had some questions for Robeline’s officials.

“You said how many tickets were written in 2016 – 1127? And that generated over a half-million dollars for the village?”

“Not in 2016. That may have been the total revenue last year, including taxes, sewers, business licenses. I’m not sure of the actual number,” Mayor Bobby Behan said.

“Rep. Howard also said the revenue you get from traffic citations is close to 90-percent of Robeline’s total income?” LeBas asked, to verify.

“That’s skewed. No more than 75-percent of village income is from traffic citations,” the mayor insisted, folding his arms and leaning back from the witness table.

“Not in 2016,” Chief O’Con agreed. “That year, the fine for one of our tickets averaged $264. Now it’s $327.”

Stock photo (courtesy: Flickr) of well-identified speeding checkpoint. This is NOT a photo of or from Robeline.

“Your village is incorporated, so what’s your sales tax rate, and your property tax rate?” Rep. Johnny Guinn (R-Jennings) asked the mayor.

“I’m unsure,” Mayor Behan said. “Our only businesses are a dollar store and a gas station. We have no industry in Robeline.”

“Sounds to me like you have a pretty good industry with these tickets,” Rep. Guinn retorted.

“How many officers do you have, with your population of 174 people?” Rep. Terry Brown inquired.

“One full-time and five part-time,” Chief O’Con answered.

“Is there a lot of crime in Robeline?” Brown asked.

“No, sir.”

“Why do you need six officers?” Brown wondered.

“They have other jobs,” Chief O’Con said.

“Let’s stay on the topic of the bill – the proposed signage,” acting committee chairman Terry Landry (D-New Iberia) interrupted.

John Gallagher with the Louisiana Municipal Association spoke in opposition to the bill, saying, “We think signage branding any location a ‘speed trap’ is problematic. It is unfair, and reflects negatively on the work police do.”

Landry, a former Louisiana State Police Commander, agreed with the LMA spokesman.

“I would offer an amendment, to change the sign wording from ‘Speed TRAP’ to ‘Zone’,” Landry suggested.

“I guess I can accept that,” Howard, the bill’s author replied. “I’m not asking them to reduce or stop their ticketing practices. I don’t care how many tickets they write, although $569-thousand dollars worth last year is a substantial chunk of change. I just want drivers warned that they’re entering an area that aggressively enforces speed limits.”

With that amendment, the bill advances to the House floor for debate, though its fate there is quite uncertain.

In 2014, HB 961 by Rep. Steve Pylant (R-Winnsboro) – the retired sheriff of Franklin Parish, whose district includes the notorious speed-enforcing Village of Baskin – also made it to the House floor. It would have required “speed trap” signage be posted at the borders leading into communities that “derive more than fifty-percent of income from traffic citations”. It failed to pass, 47-52 with Rep. Terry Landry leading the opposing arguments. He said then that such labeling cast aspersions on all police work.