The Damascus City Council voted Tuesday night in its regular meeting to continue the city’s legal battle after being found in violation of state speed trap statutes, while at the same time not appealing the most recent ruling against the speed trap statute on constitutional grounds.
City Attorney Beau Wilcox presented to the council the current standing of the city’s legal battle. Wilcox appeared on behalf of Damascus in Faulkner County Circuit Court on Feb. 7. At that hearing, Wilcox stood before Judge Chris R. Carnahan and said he felt the speed trap statute was unconstitutional and that the city was not in violation of the 30 percent threshold outlined in the statute, which was subject to interpretation due to the statute’s vague wording.
Former Faulkner County Prosecuting Attorney Cody Hiland found in February 2017 that Damascus was, in fact, in violation of the Arkansas speed trap statute because the city’s revenues from fines exceeded 30 percent of the city’s expenditures for each of the two previous years. Following Luke Ferguson’s appointment to the 20th Judicial District prosecuting attorney’s position, he upheld Hildand’s ruling.
The five-lane Arkansas Highway 65 bisects the town north-south along its two-mile boundary with a 45 mph speed limit, against the 60 mph limit on either side of town. In the prosecutor’s investigation, the city was found in violation of the statute’s requirement that tickets not exceed 30 percent of the city’s expenditures, leading to the department being sanctioned.
Since then the city has downsized its police force, which now is made up of two part-time officers and city mayor L.B. Pavatt acting as police chief.
Leading up to Wednesday’s hearing, Wilcox had presented the city’s argument on two points: that the statute itself, with the prosecutor issuing judgement and no formal right of appeal, was unconstitutional and that the method used to generate the 30 percent figure was vague.
Wilcox explained to the council that Judge Carnahan rejected the constitutionality argument, but was willing to review the 30 percent argument.
“He’s thrown us a bone,” Wilcox told said before the council.
Wilcox asked council members to approve his not pursuing the constitutionality argument, while allowing him to organize the revenue numbers to present to Carnahan. The constitutionality argument would be difficult and time-consuming, he said.
“It would be a huge waste of time to appeal that decision,” Wilcox told the council.
He explained that the constitutionality argument, while it may hold merit, would first be argued at the appeals court level, then to the state Supreme Court — a time-consuming, hence costly, process.
“I don’t think it’s a fight worth fighting,” Wilcox said.
The council voted unanimously in favor of Wilcox’s request.
With the approval, Wilcox said he would begin the process of gathering the figures needed to present to Carnahan, noting he expects the numbers to be ready by the end of the month. Tentative arrangements had already begun with City Clerk Pam Mahan and Wilcox told the council, District Court Judge Susan Weaver had volunteered a member of her staff to help with the information gathering.
Weaver’s court preside over Damascus cases, including speeding tickets.
Wilcox also told the council there would be an increasing effort by the city to work with the Arkansas Municipal League in revising the statute, written in the mid 90s, to reflect the current reality and rid it of the vagueness he felt led to Damascus being found in violation.
Wilcox said after the council meeting that the 30 percent figure used in determining Damascus being in violation of the statute included non-traffic offenses, such as jail fees, fines for misdemeanors such as theft and warrant fees. These were fees, he said, not specifically derived from speeding.
In council business after Wilcox’s presentation, the council voted in favor of selling off two additional police cars, having sold one recently. The cars would be stripped of radar and camera but otherwise sold intact, the council decided.