Legislative scrutiny increases on traffic-fine revenue

By: Mark Bowes; Richmond-Times Dispatch - February 5, 2012

Hopewell's so-called million-dollar mile is now pushing the $2 million mark in annual revenue for the cash-strapped city of smokestacks.

A traffic-enforcement program that runs 14 hours a day, seven days a week along a 1- to 2-mile section of Interstate 295 through the city has drawn the attention — and in some cases, ire — of some Virginia legislators and officials within the Virginia State Police.

The Hopewell Sheriff's Office, whose primary function is to provide courtroom security and serve civil-process papers, has carved out a special unit — complete with its own dispatching system — to focus solely on catching motorists who exceed the 70 mph speed limit as they pass briefly through Hopewell.

Eleven sheriff's deputies, all but one of whom are part time, wrote 14,778 tickets in 2011 with $2,056,387 in assessed fines, with more than $1.6 million of that being collected, the Sheriff's Office said. Seventy-five percent of those cited were from out of state.

The program, which Sheriff Greg Anderson started as a one-officer operation a year after he took office in 2006, has expanded over the past five years in personnel and revenue generated for the city.

The $26,665 in fines assessed in 2007 grew fivefold to $160,646 in 2008, tripled to $634,655 in 2009, nearly doubled to $1.1 million in 2010 and passed the $2 million mark last year.

"It's not about the money to me," Anderson said forcefully and repeatedly during a recent interview. The purpose, the sheriff said, is to slow people down and save lives.

"I'm actually corny enough to think that I can send a message in that (section of I-295) that might resonate and have an impact on people for a long stretch of that highway," he said.

The cash pouring into city coffers as a result of the fines, Anderson explained, "is the punishment piece" for breaking the law, and nothing more.

"It's astonishing to me that these people still come blowing through there at these high rates of speed," added Anderson, who takes umbrage at the suggestion that the sums being collected appear excessive.

"Is there a cutoff?" he said pointedly.

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Anderson's program, and a few others like it across the state that have generated millions of dollars in revenue, has come under increasing scrutiny from the Virginia General Assembly. Several legislators say the programs are little more than speed traps that have developed into tidy revenue streams for localities.

"I don't dispute the fact that they are enforcing the law," said state Sen. John Watkins, R-Powhatan, who introduced legislation that would strip the ability of localities to collect traffic-fine revenue on interstates. "But I have to question the pure intensity of the way they go about it."

Watkins added: "When you got somebody out there developing a revenue stream out of a process of law enforcement, you have to question whether it's all being appropriately applied" and whether justice is being served.

Watkins' bill died Jan. 18 on a 11-4 vote in the Senate Courts of Justice Committee, as did a companion bill introduced by Del. Betsy Carr, D-Richmond, in the House of Delegates. The latter was passed by indefinitely on Jan. 25.