Washington, La. scrutinized for being 'speed trap'

Officials of the St. Landry Parish town of Washington call it one of the oldest settlements in Louisiana, known for towering plantation homes and live oaks.

Critics call it a notorious speed trap.

A state House committee approved two bills Tuesday to trim speeding tickets issued in Washington .

“It is far and away the worst speed trap in the state of Louisiana,” said state Rep. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport, and the sponsor of both bills.

One of the proposals, House Bill 565, would require towns with home rule charters, which Washington has, to turn over revenue from speeding tickets of less than 10 miles per hour over the speed limit to the Louisiana Highway Safety Fund.

It passed the House Transportation Committee 11-3.

The other measure, House Bill 1233, would ban municipalities from issuing speeding tickets if less than half a linear mile of the interstate travel lane is within the city limits — also aimed at Washington.

That plan won committee approval 11-5.

Both bills next face action in the full House.

After the meeting, Seabaugh, who like other north Louisiana lawmakers often travels through the area and has gotten complaints from constituents, declined to predict chances for approval there.

The votes followed testimony by Seabaugh that Washington collected $1.3 million in fines and forfeitures for the financial year that ended June 30, 2013, according to a state report.

That accounted for 84 percent of the town’s revenue, figures show, which was good for fourth statewide.

The $1.3 million collected was easily tops in the state.

Seabaugh said local law enforcement officials routinely write speeding tickets for motorists traveling one or two miles over the speed limit on a tiny stretch of Interstate 49.

Seabaugh said a 2009 state law requires revenue from speeding tickets for less than 10 mph over the speed limit to be turned over to the state but exempts cities and towns with home rule charters.

He said Washington and other towns converted to home rule charters since then to keep the dollars from speeding tickets.

The bill would lift that exemption.

Washington, which officials call the third oldest settlement in Louisiana, is just north of Opelousas.

Washington Mayor Joseph Pitre did not return a call for comment.

State Rep. Dalton Honoré, D-Baton Rouge, backed the measure.

“I am in favor of your bill because it is Washington,” HonorĂ© said.

State Rep. Terry Brown, No Party-Colfax, said he once heard complaints about motorists getting a speeding ticket in Washington while he was at O’Hare Airport in Chicago.

“That is an indictment of the whole state,” Brown said. “We are known for tourism and when we give those people tickets who come here, it creates a black eye.”

An official of the Louisiana Municipal Association, John Gallagher, opposed the plan.

Gallagher said the bill could run afoul of the state constitution by trying to impose rules on cities and towns with home rule charters.

He said officials of his group plan to meet with officials in Washington and elsewhere before the 2015 legislative session to address complaints.

State Rep. Terry Landry, D-Lafayette, said while there are some “bad actors” in the state, oftentimes people complain about tickets regardless of whether they were speeding.

“We have such a cavalier attitude about traffic enforcement in this state,” said Landry, a former superintendent of State Police.

The other bill, which would limit areas where local officials could issue speeding tickets, also sparked controversy.

Seabaugh said the problem spot for speed-ticket writing is a portion of an overpass on I-49 that extends about 50 to 100 yards.

“This is about abuse,” he said. “It is not about law enforcement.”

Seabaugh noted that, even if his bill becomes law, sheriffs and State Police could issue tickets in that area.

The committee rejected a third Seabaugh bill aimed at Washington.

That measure, House Bill 1250, would require that signs be erected just north and south of the town that say “Slow Down Speed Trap Area.”

“We are calling it what it is,” Seabaugh said.

Landry said Washington is a historic town, attracts visitors and it would be unfair to merchants to stigmatize the area.

The legislation failed 6-10.

A similar bill cleared the same House committee earlier this year that was even broader in scope but died in the full House.