Missouri’s so-called speed trap law is filled with potholes. The statute is supposed to keep cities and towns from stuffing their coffers with traffic fines, but an NBC Action News investigation found it is nearly impossible to enforce.
The statute—known as the Macks Creek law—limits the amount of revenue local governments can make off traffic tickets. Once the cap is reached, any extra revenue is supposed to be distributed to schools. However, NBC Action News discovered the chances of getting caught are slim, meaning students could be missing out.
The story behind Macks Creek
Macks Creek is a small town in Camden County, Mo—near the Lake of the Ozarks—that lived and died by the speed trap. In the early 1990s, it was legendary for ticketing drivers for any infraction along Highway 54.
At its peak, the town with a population of 272 was writing an estimated 2,900 tickets per year and fines accounted for 75 percent of its annual revenue. Two hills led into the town from each side and the speed limit dropped from 65 mph to 45 mph.
Ticketing drivers grew so chronic it led to the establishment in 1995 of Missouri’s speed trap law, known still as the Macks Creek Law. A state lawmaker, Delbert Scoot, was stopped for his tires touching the white line along the shoulder. Scott later drafted the bill that became the speed trap law.
Less than three years after the law was passed, Macks Creek filed for bankruptcy. It wasn’t all because of the law, though. A 1997 audit found major financial problems and shortly thereafter, almost every town official resigned.
Deputies from the Camden County Sheriff’s Department and troopers from the State Highway Patrol now protect Macks Creek.
What does the law require?
The statute originally limited towns from making more than 45 percent of their revenue from traffic fines.
However, more recently, Sen. John Griesheimer amended it to tighten some of the rules. The state senator was angry about the town of Foristell, and its enforcement of I-70.
“They’re not protecting their own citizen by doing traffic stops on the interstate highways where they don’t really have any jurisdiction at all,” Griesheimer told NBC Action News on the phone. “A city’s responsibility is to provide a service to the public. It’s not to generate revenue off the plight of others.”
Last year, Griesheimer’s amendment lowered the threshold to 35 percent of a town’s annual revenue , and also included court costs.
Randolph attracts “speed trap” label
In September, Missouri state auditor Susan Montee found that Randolph, Mo. was in violation of the Macks Creek Law.
The tiny town of roughly 50 people is located along 210 Highway, the busy route to one of the area’s casinos. The audit estimated Randolph generated somewhere between 75 and 83 percent of its revenue from traffic violations on 210 Highway.
The audit said Randolph owed $39,575 to $53,878 to the Department of Revenue, and recommended the municipal court review all tickets to determine an exact amount.
If collected by the State, that money would be distributed to school districts in Clay County.
“Some of us have wondered how a city that small can write so many tickets,” said Kansas City area traffic attorney Chris Kopecky. “It seems like with Randolph being discovered, other cities may be under scrutiny.”
Investigating if other towns are pushing the limit
Several viewers asked NBC Action News to investigate other area towns to see if they are pushing the limit.
We analyzed Missouri Vehicle Stops reports filed with Attorney General’s office, searching for cities that wrote a lot of tickets compared to their population size. We then requested budget reports from cities to see how much they raked in from court fines and costs.
While the majority of small towns coast under the revenue radar, the NBC Action News research revealed some loopholes in the law.
In Oakview, Police Chief Carl Drowns said the department has earned the nickname of “North Oak Highway Patrol” for its enforcement of a short stretch of North Oak Trafficway. In 2009, police issued 1,091 tickets. A budget report indicated Oakview generated 35 percent of its revenue from court fines and costs. However, because all the tickets took place on city streets—not state or federal highways—Oakview would be exempt from the Macks Creek Law.
In Northmoor, data revealed that police in the town of roughly 400 people are not just patrolling the quiet neighborhoods. The stop report showed officers made 412 stops on I-29, more than half of all the stops they made in 2009. The stretch of interstate in Northmoor city limits takes roughly ten seconds to drive. Again, financial documents showed Northmoor was close to the Macks Creek limit, but it did not surpass the cap.
NBC Action News also looked at Ferrelview, Tracy, Platte Woods, Bates City, Lake Winnebago and Claycomo.