Andy Wise investigates alleged speeding ticket waste - Action News 5 - Memphis, Tennessee

Andy Wise investigates alleged speeding ticket waste

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MEMPHIS, TN -

(WMC-TV) - Memphis police commanders said their traffic patrols will continue to write tickets for violations barely over speed limits, despite a virtual court policy to throw most of them out.

"We're not really out just to get tickets," said Maj. Roderic Cunningham of the Memphis Police Department's Traffic Division. "We're basically out to make citizen contacts."

An Action News 5 Investigators open records request revealed the tortoise really gets the ticket in Memphis.

Police patrols issued 42,096 tickets for speeding between five and ten miles per hour over the speed limit from Jan. 2012 through Dec. 2013.

According to the records, the judges of Memphis Municipal Court dismissed 25,540 -- 60 percent -- of those tickets without penalty or court costs. No questions asked.

"I am thankful it was dismissed, and I don't have to pay the court costs, but I don't think it should have (been issued) in the first place," said Erika Cleaves of South Memphis. Her ticket for going five miles per hour over the limit got tossed.

"I'm having to take off time that I am not getting paid for to do this," said Hernando, MS's Karen Carnell. Her violation for eight miles per hour over the limit was dismissed without contest or comment. "This is just a waste of time."

In one afternoon, The Action News 5 Investigators witnessed Memphis Municipal Court Administrative Judge Tarik Sugarmon dismiss every speeding ticket between five and ten miles per hour over the limit.

Violators were led into and out of the courtroom like an assembly line, only to leave with mixed expressions of relief and outrage.

"It was a waste of gas," said Teona Green of East Memphis. Sugarmon and his staff dismissed her five-mile-an-hour violation as quickly as she stepped up to the clerk's desk.

Sugarmon said he or his staff review every ticket -- no matter how insignificant the speeding violation -- for driver histories, past violations and extenuating circumstances. "Every ticket rises and falls on the facts of the case," he said.

He added that he also considers the reliability of radar at those slow speeds, the differences in how vehicles are manufactured and what he referred to as an "abuse of discretion" by some Memphis police officers in issuing these minuscule speeding violations.

He gave an example of an officer whom he would not name. "During the course of two or three months, he had written about 56 out of 90 tickets five miles or less -- most in the 2, 3, 4 mile-an-hour range," Sugarmon said. "In that instance, I think there is a pattern of abuse."

In the records, The Action News 5 Investigators found another Memphis police officer who, in 2013, had issued 32 tickets for speeding between five and ten miles per hour over the limit. He had written ten of those tickets in one day: Jan. 11, 2013. 

The records show municipal court judges dismissed 23 of the officer's 32 tickets without cost or penalty to the violators.

"That officer was likely on a neighborhood saturation when he wrote those ten tickets in one day," said Cunningham. "Officers will often set up in specific locations based on citizens' complaints in those neighborhoods."

Complaints about motorists going five to ten miles per hour over the speed limit? "People complain - believe it or not, Andy -- of people driving three or four miles per hour over the speed limit," Cunningham answered. "It's just based on what neighborhood it is.

"Regardless of whether you're one mile or two miles over the speed limit, you're still in violation of traffic laws in this city."

Cunningham said the piddly tickets are also probable cause, keys to uncovering more serious criminals. He said speeding stops for a low as two miles an hour over the limit have turned up fugitives, unregistered sex offenders, even missing children.

"When we have an opportunity to stop a violator, we have an opportunity to find out whether this person is wanted or has a criminal history," he said.

Memphis City Court Clerk Thomas Long said he understands how police officers may use these speeding stops to ferret out potential criminals. But he said his staff ends up wasting hundreds of man-hours filing the tickets and scheduling their court appearances, only to have Sugarmon and the other municipal court judges toss the vast majority of them out.

"Yes, it is wasting my staff's time," Long admitted. "If you're going to dismiss them, and you know you're going to dismiss them -- five miles or less -- then we need to meet with the police department and say, 'Look, this is what we are going to do.'"

"Why don't they just give a warning?" Sugarmon asked rhetorically.

"It gives us an opportunity to make a citizen contact, whether it be positive or negative, and it's not going to change," said Cunningham.

The Action News 5 Investigators found no pattern of racial or ethnic profiling in the 24 months of speeding tickets we researched.

Both Cunningham and Sugarmon said for violators like Carnell who had to take a half-day off to fight one of these speeding tickets, the money those violators saved in dismissed court costs and in keeping the tickets off their insurance records should more than make up for their lost wages and time.

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