Town rejects speed trap label

While legislative critics call it the worst speed trap in Louisiana, Washington Police Chief Ronelle Broussard makes no apologies.

“State law is state law,” Broussard said Friday. “If you are speeding, you are speeding.”

He added later, “It is not about tickets. It is not about money. It is about public safety.”

Broussard made his comments three days after a House committee approved two bills aimed at cracking down on Washington’s status as one of the state’s top ticket-writing spots.

Tickets and forfeitures accounted for 84 percent of the town’s revenues for a one-year period that ended in mid-2013, according to a state report.

The $1.3 million collected during that time was far and away tops in the state.

State Rep. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport, sponsor of the bills and a regular traveler through the area, will try to convince the full House to endorse the Washington crackdown, possibly next week.

But residents of this St. Landry Parish town of about 1,000 have little sympathy for any sanctions coming from Baton Rouge.

“The speed limit is 75 miles per hour,” said Rob Rainwater, co-owner of the Old Schoolhouse Antiques Mall, which is a converted school erected in 1934.

“I can understand the aggravation with people traveling on the interstate,” Rainwater said. “But 75 is plenty fast enough.”

Washington is a few miles off of Interstate 49, just north of Opelousas and about 75 miles northwest of Baton Rouge.

It has a bank, library and enough antique shops to make it something of a destination site for those who collect old things.

But St. Landry Parish has long been known for its rigid enforcement of the speed limit, and Washington is often cited as a spot where motorists better watch their speedometer.

One of the proposals, House Bill 565, would require towns with home rule charters, which includes Washington, to turn over revenue from speeding tickets of less than 10 mph to the Louisiana Highway Safety Fund, rather than retaining it for town operations.

The other measure is House Bill 1233, which would ban municipalities from issuing speeding tickets if their boundaries include less than half a linear mile, roughly 880 yards, of the interstate travel lane.

Broussard figures that about 300 yards of I-49 are in the town’s boundaries.

That means, if the bill becomes law, local officers would no longer be able to issue revenue-generating citations there.

If both bills become law, he said, that would virtually end the town’s police force, which includes seven full-time officers, two part-time and one reserve.

Even the dispatcher would be let go.

“It is going to shut me down,” said Broussard, who is in his fourth year as police chief.

State Rep. Ledricka Thierry, D-Opelousas, whose House district includes Washington, does not plan to let that happen.

Thierry said Seabaugh’s bills are riddled with problems and that her colleague is also violating an unwritten rule about House members targeting one another’s districts.

“Especially without their agreement,” she said.

“We have speed limits for a reason.

“I just feel like this is an attack from state government on local government. I just think it is very unfair.”

One of the most hotly debated topics in the fracas is just how strictly speed limits are enforced.

Seabaugh said tickets are routinely issued to motorists from his area and elsewhere traveling one, two or three miles over the speed limit.

“That’s a flat-out lie,” Broussard snapped. “Sir, we have never written a citation on the interstate for one, two, three, four miles over the speed limit in the 10 years that we started working the interstate.”

The police chief noted that Washington is the first town travelers reach after the wide-open spaces on I-49 from Alexandria southward.

Meanwhile, the speed limit rises from 70 mph to 75 mph for northbound traffic on I-49 just south of Washington, which may cause motorists to accelerate more than allowed.

The speed limit that includes the boundaries of Washington is 75 mph.

Broussard said his officers generally give motorists a cushion of five miles over that.

He said three of four speeding tickets are for drivers going 80 mph and up.

“We have stopped motorists going 101 mph,” Broussard said.

Local residents are mindful of the limit.

“The speed limit is 75,” city worker Joshua Lazare said. “If you go 76, you get a ticket.”

Washington’s supporters in the Legislature said Seabaugh’s bill could jeopardize the livelihood of innocent merchants by discouraging visitors.

Jennie Rainwater, co-owner of the mall and ex-wife of Rob Rainwater, said, “if you don’t speed, you don’t get a ticket.”

She said she hears occasional complaints about speed limit enforcement from customers.

“I just very kindly tell them that I don’t have any control over the Police Department,” she said with a laugh.