SORRENTO — Mayor Mike Lambert and Police Chief Earl Theriot clashed during Tuesday’s Town Council meeting over two documents each claimed governed the use of the town’s police vehicles by police officers.
Theriot said Tuesday a 3-year-old legal opinion from the state Attorney General’s Office gave him the authority to permit his police officers to take their police vehicles home wherever they live. Lambert claimed an ordinance adopted by the Town Council in 2009 prohibits police vehicles from leaving Ascension Parish.
Theriot said he had never seen that town ordinance before.
“I didn’t even know that existed,” Theriot said.
Theriot insisted he had no written policy on the use of police vehicles, only a soft rule that police officers may not take their vehicles home if they live more than 35 miles from Sorrento.
Theriot pointed to a Jan. 27, 2010, legal opinion from Attorney General James D. “Buddy” Caldwell that said Theriot could authorize an on-call reserve police officer to use a town-owned police vehicle to drive to and from his home outside “the corporate limits of the town when in the exercise of official duties,” the letter said.
“It’s an opinion,” Lambert said. “Opinion is not law.”
No formal action was taken at the Town Council meeting, although Lambert and Theriot said after the meeting they would work on creating a written policy dictating the use of police and town vehicles.
The Town Council’s questioning of Theriot’s police vehicle policy and the use of a vehicle monitoring and tracking system on each vehicle was prompted by police Officer James Lavone Bell’s involvement in a traffic accident on Sept. 2 while he was pursuing a truck clocked at 80 mph in a posted 55-mph zone.
According to a State Police report, Bell said he was driving between 80 to 90 mph southbound on Airline Highway just north of La. 22 and tried to pass a car in front of him to reach the speeding truck.
Bell ended up hitting the vehicle he had attempted to pass, the State Police report said.
Those at the scene refused to be taken to the hospital.
As a result of the incident, Theriot said, a letter of reprimand was placed in Bell’s personnel file.
The crash also brought to the Town Council’s attention data recorded by an Acadian Monitoring Services device on Bell’s police vehicle showing Bell drove faster than 75 mph on 720 occasions between July 1 and Sept. 3, according to a report from the recorder.
Speeds ranged from 76 mph to 109 mph, though most were between the 80’s to mid-90’s mph, the report shows.
Most of Bell’s high-speed driving occurred in Ascension Parish, but he was also recorded driving at high speeds in East Baton Rouge Parish, where he resides, and in Livingston Parish.