After waiting in line at the monthly traffic court, Kierstan Pointer, a single mom who sped through town, simply handed over a wad of crumpled $20 bills and lamented her mistake.
“This is really hurting my family financially,” she said.
Welcome to Hillsboro, the town that may well be Alabama’s worst speed trap.
Hillsboro is home to just 407 people in Lawrence County, yet its municipal court collected $253,183 in 2020, according to town records, which comes out to more than $600 per resident. It also kicked up more to the state in traffic fines than nearby Muscle Shoals, a city 40 times its size. And in 2021, Hillsboro gave out more speeding tickets through federal grants than the police departments in Mobile and Montgomery.
“Our main goal is trying to keep people safe and slow people down,” said Michael Taylor, the police chief in Hillsboro. “I don’t tell officers to write tickets. I don’t tell officers how many tickets to write.”
Tiny Hillsboro is far from alone, situated in a veritable gantlet of speed traps between Huntsville and Muscle Shoals. Through copious state and local records requests, AL.com identified nine towns in Alabama that stand apart from the rest — stopping far more people than live there, most deploying federal grants to fund police overtime, each collecting more total fees than some far larger and busier cities.
The tug-of-war for this ticket cash pits the state, courts, counties and towns against one another, even prompting a legal battle in Lawrence County over ticketing profits and leading small towns to create loopholes to keep more of the money.
Leah Nelson is the research director at the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, a nonprofit that studies fine and fees. She said that while the government has a good reason to enforce traffic laws, the financial punishments are an “inequitable” way to raise money, rather than promote public safety.
“We all share the roads,” she said. “We definitely want laws in place that put guardrails on how people behave on the roads.
“But fining people so harshly that they are unable to pay rent or utilities or unable to get their kids school uniforms, doesn’t serve any public policy goal I can imagine,” she added, “unless the public policy goal is to increase poverty and instability among certain communities.”
The problem is most concentrated in northwest Alabama.
In fact, the three worst speed traps identified in AL.com’s analysis are clustered in a ticketing turnpike, on a 15-mile stretch along Alabama 20 in rural Lawrence County.
And northwest Alabama’s list of speed traps doesn’t stop there. Three more of Alabama’s 20 worst speed traps lie on U.S. 72, parallel to Alabama 20 and just on the other side of the Tennessee River.
Many of these towns have few economic options. Hillsboro, with two square miles, has struggled since the closing of International Paper in nearby Courtland nearly a decade ago. Hillsboro lost a third of its population since the turn of the 21st century.
Samuel B. Gedge, a lawyer for the libertarian Institute for Justice, said that small towns often turn to traffic tickets for revenue, tapping poor people and travelers for cash, instead of imposing taxes on more influential residents.
“Then, the people who are better-heeled in the community don’t have to bear that (financial) burden,” he said.
Gedge’s group is suing the town of Brookside, a notorious ticket trap just outside Birmingham, over its troubled traffic stops. But while Brookside stood apart as a police department run amok, with disregard for norms and laws, the towns of northwest Alabama stand apart at the opposite extreme: efficient money machines, seemingly operating within the bounds of state and local laws to tap passers-by for financial support.
“You know they’re out there,” said Hillsboro Chief Taylor of at least six police departments that patrol between Decatur and the Shoals. “So how can you consider that a speed trap? We’re not hiding behind trees. We don’t sit at nighttime with our lights off in the middle of the median.”
Just 14 miles west of Hillsboro sits Town Creek, a name that comes as little surprise to the drivers of northwest Alabama.
Jerry Garrett, the police chief, balks at the notion that Town Creek relies on tickets for revenue.
He said he and his officers issue tickets to prevent crashes. And while he acknowledges the town has not seen a lot of traffic fatalities lately, he considers that an indication of his department’s success.
“I don’t have a problem with active officers,” Garrett said. “Matter of fact, I encourage it — not for revenue purposes specifically, but for safety issues.”
Town Creek gave nearly 1,600 tickets from grant-funded overtime alone in 2021 — an impressive feat for a town of just over 1,000 people.
The force of just three full-time officers gave out more than two tickets per hour as part of those overtime grants. That was the busiest rate of any department logging 200 or more overtime hours in 2021.
Garrett said the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs called him two or three years ago to say Town Creek was eligible for those overtime grants based on a nearby traffic “hotspot.”
Although the state distributed $8.2 million to local agencies to ticket along traffic hotspots between 2018 and 2021, officials will not tell the public where those hotspots are or how they are defined. And AL.com found no connection between state transportation data on the busiest roads and who issued the most tickets through the grants.
“We are not in a position to discuss specific hotspots,” said Rhonda Stricklin, the information management director for the Alabama Transportation Institute at the University of Alabama, which determines which roads are traffic hotspots.
Town Creek is not just aggressive for its size. The tiny town issued the sixth most tickets under the grants in 2021, trailing much larger cities like Mobile, Montgomery and Huntsville, each roughly 200 times larger than Town Creek. Hillsboro ranked No. 5, one slot ahead of Town Creek.
When drivers pay up, a big chunk of the money goes to the state. But there is still enough left over that Town Creek and Lawrence County found it worth fighting over in court.
And towns in Alabama find ways to keep more of the ticket cash.
Driving school loophole
An officer stopped Deanna Pitman in July as she sped through Hillsboro on her way back to Huntsville from a trip to visit family in Texas. She knew her mistake. She had been worried she’d be late for her 12-hour shift as a certified nursing assistant mentor, and drove too fast.
As the officer handed her the ticket, Pittman said out loud what she feared: that the fine would hurt, but the pumped up insurance rate that might follow it would be worse.
The cop told her not to worry because the town would let her attend driving school, and that would make it all go away.
“I thought he was the judge,” Pitman quipped. She thought it odd even then to hear an officer on the side of the road telling her about the likely court outcome.
But he was right. A month later the judge offered her driving school.
What Pittman didn’t know is that towns like Hillsboro make more money when someone chooses driving school rather than pleading guilty and paying a fine. That’s because when a town dismisses a ticket and instead charges a fee to attend driving school, it does not have to share a portion of the cash with the state.
Hillsboro charges drivers more to attend a four-hour Saturday morning class than they would have to pay if a judge found them guilty.
Those who attend driving school there — taught in the tiny town hall or beneath a picnic shed near one of three military surplus trucks parked on the grass — are often grateful to keep their offenses from insurers.
“What’s really happening is not that they’re cutting people a break,” said Gedge, the Institute for Justice lawyer. “It’s that the primary motivator of the entire enforcement system is to get as many people into the system as possible so you can funnel them into this more lucrative … driving school in this example.”
In 2017, the Lawrence County Commission threatened lawsuits against Hillsboro and other towns there, alleging they used the driving school scheme to avoid paying the county a $35 fee tacked onto local tickets to help pay for a new jail.
Facing the threat of a court battle, Hillsboro relented and started paying the county its $35. The town hiked the fee for drivers to attend the school, effectively offsetting the loss.
Hillsboro charges $240 for driving school. Of that, it keeps $195, sending the county $35 and paying its driving school instructor $10 per student.
When people, such as Pittman, choose to complete the course online, the town keeps even more of the money because it doesn’t have to pay an instructor. That cost is passed on to the driver.
Online driving school costs $277: The $240 fee and $37 to the online class provider.
“That’s a lot of money,” Pittman said. “It seems like it should be cheaper online than in-person because you are doing it on your own.”
Aside from spending a few thousand dollars on supplies each year, Hillsboro’s only other driving school expense is paying the instructor.
Chief Garrett in Town Creek works closely with Chief Taylor in nearby Hillsboro. In fact, Hillsboro pays Garrett to teach its in-person driving school. Town Creek, likewise, pays Taylor to teach its class.
Garrett said their arrangement is designed to avoid the appearance of ethical entanglements, as both chiefs make $10 per student. Garrett said he used to teach driving school in Town Creek, but started switching with Taylor after a former mayor raised concerns about the appearance of a conflict of interest.
“I was never writing tickets just to boost up students,” Garrett said.
Gedge said he sees a problem with arrangements like these.
“I mean if anything, this seeming focus on impropriety suggests that officers in these positions realize that forcing people to pay fees as a way of generating revenue, as opposed to doing justice, is in fact quite problematic,” he said. “The solution of course, is to stop prioritizing revenue over doing justice.”
Unlike Hillsboro, Town Creek fought back against Lawrence County’s demand for a portion of the driving school revenue. The county commission sued and took the town to trial. Five years later, Lawrence County Circuit Judge Mark Craig has not issued a ruling.
The ticket turnpike
Meanwhile, the turnpike grows.
Meet North Courtland, located on Alabama 20, about halfway between Town Creek and Hillsboro. It was one of just six towns in Alabama that sent more than $100 per resident to the state for tickets and fines last year. And North Courtland only recently leaned into ticketing.
Home to just under 500 people, the town paid more than $58,000 from court fines and fees to the state finance department in 2021. That’s a 549% spike since 2017 — the third fastest increase in Alabama over that time behind only Hillsboro and Triana, a small town near Huntsville that’s one of the fastest-growing towns in the state.
Rogersville, just across the river from Hillsboro and Town Creek, on U.S. 72 in Lauderdale County, is home to 1,300 people. It stood out for the high number of traffic cases both filed and adjudicated in its municipal court in 2020. Both numbers were over 1.5 traffic cases per resident, and about nine out of 10 cases in Rogersville are traffic tickets.
But it didn’t take public records to find Rogersville. The Drive-By Truckers sang about getting pulled over in Rogersville in their teen anthem “Let There Be Rock” in 2001.
Killen, another small town near Rogersville, sends some speeders to Lauderdale County’s driving school. The county charges participants $35, but Killen tacks on $150 as an “administrative fee.”
And Killen, like the troubled town of Brookside, has turned its Facebook page into a vehicle to shame those who fail to pay. Killen issues arrest warrants, suspends driver’s licenses and posts the names of hundreds of people who don’t show up to court or pay their traffic debts. Last month the town of about 1,000 people posted 500 names on Facebook. Rogersville’s municipal court then shared Killen’s post shaming those who didn’t pay.
And while there is a concentrated corridor of speed traps between the Shoals and Huntsville, giving out lots of tickets is in no way limited to northwest Alabama.
Several towns across the state ticket at a rate well above their population, despite having no greater traffic flow than much larger cities. A couple are in Baldwin County on the way to the beach. One is near Gadsden. Another sits on I-65 south of Montgomery.
AL.com reached out to the top nine towns. Other than Town Creek and Hilllsboro, only one commented for this story.
Chief Kenneth Hempfleng in Silverhill, one of those top nine, said his department patrols a jurisdiction larger than the town and they also see a lot of traffic on the way to the beach. Silverhill has five full-time police and four part-time officers, he said, who are generous with warnings. Still, the force wrote 2,229 traffic citations in 2019, which he noted is just over six per day.
“In the grand scheme of things, that’s not a big number,” said Hempfleng. “If you live in this area, and someone comes through going 56 in a 35, what do you want the police to do? Sit there and look at them?”
But whenever someone gets a ticket in a town like Silverhill, then pleads guilty and pays the fine, just a portion of that money stays in the town. So where does the rest go?
Fines and fees from traffic tickets are split between more than a dozen funds across different levels of government, including the state general fund, the town’s general fund and an array of others.
Yet state law enforcement has not been transparent about how that money gets there.
The state finance department provided records of dollars paid in, ADECA provided records about tickets issued through federal overtime grants and, when asked, the towns provided financial documents.
The Administrative Office of Courts provided its records of municipal court cases, but could not identify the total number of tickets statewide, as many towns do not report their case data.
But the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency for months refused and ignored requests for basic public records about how many tickets each police department issues. ALEA also denied more detailed requests for information about which drivers get pulled over, by age, race and nature of offense. The agency won’t even say how many tickets are written in Alabama each year.
Nelson, of Appleseed, said the lack of transparency speaks to an evasion of accountability.
“We can’t make better public policy without having the information to make informed decisions or without taking a critical look at the data,” she said, noting that the secrecy prevents the public from seeing who is most affected by policing for profit.
“It is a decision not to hold yourself to account,” she said. “It couldn’t speak more poorly of the state that it isn’t releasing this data.”