A prosecutor said last Wednesday, May 9, the city of Damascus must stop patrolling highways within its city limits immediately for violating the state's speed-trap law.
Cody Hiland, prosecuting attorney for the 20th Judicial District, said an investigation conducted by the Arkansas State Police under his direction showed that more than 30 percent of the city's expenditures in a year were funded by traffic fines, in violation of state law.
Damascus City Attorney Beau Wilcox filed a request for an injunction May 9 afternoon.
The sanctions issued by Hiland call for the city to “cease patrolling all affected highways within the jurisdictional limits of the city” and declare that if the city continues patrolling it will commit a Class A misdemeanor. Per the terms of the sanction, the city can petition the Prosecuting Attorney's Office after one year if it wants the sanction reviewed in order to be lifted.
The city's request for an injunction was expected. In its regular meeting Tuesday night, the day before sanctions were announced, the Damascus City Council agreed in a 3-2 vote to approve a $2,000 retainer to permit Wilcox to “vigorously oppose” whatever sanctions were announced.
In the request for an injunction, filed in Faulkner County Circuit Court, Wilcox argues that “rumors and innuendo” led to the investigation, that there are constitutional problems with the speed-trap law, that the law uses vague terms, and that the city's safety would suffer as county sheriff and state police highway patrols would not be as effective in controlling traffic.
The May 9 sanction announcement was the outcome of an investigation begun in June 2016, brought by Hiland's office after it received complaints about traffic enforcement in Damascus creating a speed trap.
Hiland first said in February the city had violated the 30 percent rule. Although not required to by the statute, he gave the city 30 days to respond before sanctions were issued.
Wilcox filed a response in March raising several objections, including what he claims are constitutional problems with the law and the city's unique position of having the five-lane Highway 65 running through the town.
A quick check of online maps show Highway 65 makes a 2.1 mile run through the city, with 11 intersecting streets, not including business entrances. North and south of the city the speed limit on the highway is 60 mph, slowing to 45 mph through the town.
Damascus straddles the Faulkner County and Van Buren County lines. It is expected sheriff's deputies and state police will take over patrol duties on the highway while the Damascus Police are sanctioned from doing so. Van Buren County Sheriff Scott Bradley said he was told the sanctions were forthcoming a few days before they were announced by the prosecutor's office. He had not, he said, made any changes to the department duty roster or shift briefings in light of the Damascus sanctions.
On Monday, May 15, a Van Buren County Sheriff's officer could be heard on the radio, making traffic stops for cars exceeding the speed limit while transiting Damascus.
The sanctions Hiland issued May 9 state, “The City of Damascus Police Department is found to have abused its police power through the enforcement of criminal and traffic laws for the principal purpose of raising revenue for the municipality and not for the purpose of public safety and is subject to the sanctions provided by law.”
Wilcox's injunction request has not yet been assigned a court date at press time.
Hiland has said previously that to the best of his knowledge Arkansas' speed-trap law is the only one in the state under which the prosecutor acts as investigator and has a judicial role in assessing sanctions. This point was also noted by Wilcox in questioning the statute's constitutionality.
Shortly after Hiland's announcement, Wilcox issued an email declaring that the council had authorized him to “vigorously contest the sanctions as put forth by the Prosecuting Attorney's Office due to the implications they would have on the safety of the community and motorists generally” and that nobody representing the city would make a statement on the matter “until our case is filed in Faulkner County Circuit Court, at which time I will issue a press release summarizing our position and our objectives.”