Hundreds of citations marred after officer didn’t calibrate radar gun
GONZALES — Ascension Parish prosecutors said Thursday they will seek the dismissal of hundreds of pending speeding tickets issued by a Sorrento police officer who testified last month he failed to do a standard calibration on his radar gun before writing speeding tickets.
Twenty-third Judicial District Attorney Ricky Babin said he will not bring the “tainted evidence” taken by the officer, James Lavone Bell, into court over a nearly nine-month period.
Though a precise count is not available, Babin estimated hundreds of speeding citations could be involved because the dismissals will extend from the Sept. 10 hearing where Bell testified to the start of Bell’s employment with Sorrento Police, which was on Dec. 28, 2012.
“I am not taking traffic citations involving that officer during that time period, with that mechanism, for speeding because he has testified it is not accurate or may not be accurate,” Babin said.
He added the speeding citations from Bell will be thrown out as they work through the court process.
Though an exact count of tickets was not available, it appears only a few of have been tossed out so far in Ascension’s misdemeanor Parish Court.
Bell has come under scrutiny in recent days because of the 720 times his patrol car was recorded going faster than 75 mph between July 1 and Sept. 3. Some of that speeding occurred outside Sorrento near his home in Baton Rouge.
Bell also got into an accident during a high-speed chase in pursuit of a speeding car Sept. 2 on Airline Highway.
Police Chief Earl Theriot Jr. did not return a message for comment Thursday, though he has defended some of Bell’s high-speed travel as likely being in the course of his patrol duties.
Still, Theriot issued a written reprimand to Bell for his driving in the accident, for which State Police found Bell at fault.
Under questioning during a Sept. 10 speeding trial, Bell told prosecutors and Parish Court Judge Marilyn Lambert that he did not use a “tuning fork” to check the speed his radar gun was showing.
Assistant District Attorney Morgan Gravois, who handles traffic cases in Lambert’s court, said the question is routinely asked of officers and sheriff’s deputies in traffic cases to establish the accuracy of the radar or laser gun.
Gravois said the DA’s office is not going to prosecute speeding tickets Bell issued prior to his testimony during the Sept. 10 speeding trial.
She said prosecutors are researching how many tickets are involved and how many people have paid tickets already.
Gravois did not have an exact number on how many have been dismissed so far.
She said Judge Lambert found the driver in the Sept. 10 speeding trial not guilty.
Another 10 cases were dismissed Tuesday, Oct. 15, with the notation written on each ticket, “Prior to Officer Bell calibrating and self-testing radar,” Gravois and clerk of court officials said.
An additional batch of citations were dismissed on an Oct. 2 arraignment date, though Gravois and court officials did not know the number involved.
Babin said the speeding citations are not collected in one central place but are under a citation number that can include other violations and so must be handled as the tickets come up.
Babin also emphasized prosecutors are not dismissing other traffic citations Bell has issued, such as for seat belts, broken tail lights or tinted windows.
“I don’t want the public to just throw away the ticket,” Babin said.
Babin added he will not refund speeding citations Bell issued where drivers have pleaded guilty and paid the ticket because they have admitted they were speeding.