No one who drives regularly from Decatur to the Shoals via Alabama 20 or from Athens to Florence via U.S. 72 needs a study to tell them they’re driving through speed traps. It’s common knowledge.
Nevertheless, motorists now have some statistical confirmation after AL.com took state and federal statistics to come up with a list of the state’s worst.
The top three are all in Lawrence County along Alabama 20. In order, they are Hillsboro, North Courtland and Town Creek.
All three rank worse than Brookside, which comes in at No. 5, and is now infamous nationally for its abuse of motorists venturing through its police jurisdiction.
Brookside was enough of a black eye for the state that the Alabama Legislature responded by enacting a law, co-sponsored by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, that will require municipalities starting in 2025 to report how much money they collect from court fees and fines and how that revenue is spent. Also, no more than 10% of a city’s general operation budget can come from traffic ticket fines and penalties.
The libertarian Institute for Justice is currently heading a class action lawsuit against Brookside, population 1,253, which increased its revenue from fines and forfeitures by 640% between 2018 and 2020, making up half the city’s total income.
The U.S. attorney’s office has come out in support of the suit against Brookside, which is seeking to have it dismissed.
“Courts, prosecutors, and police should be driven by justice — not revenue,” an assistant U.S. attorney wrote in the court filing.
Of course, local officials will always say their actions are driven by legitimate concerns and not revenue.
“Our main goal is trying to keep people safe and slow people down,” said Michael Taylor, the police chief in Hillsboro, population 407. “I don’t tell officers to write tickets. I don’t tell officers how many tickets to write.”
Also in the top 15 speed traps are Rogersville (No. 9) and Killen (No. 15) on U.S. 72 in Lauderdale County. Motorists heading to and from the Shoals area from points east are either especially in need of policing or they’re convenient targets.
Perhaps road safety is the primary concern of law enforcement and municipal government in these communities, but it seems more than coincidence that speed traps tend to predominate in small towns with a small tax base. Hillsboro, North Courtland and Town Creek all have populations below 1,000. In fairness to them, despite their small populations, they are all along a heavily trafficked roadway.
Hillsboro and North Courtland are majority Black and deal with higher than average poverty. North Courtland split off from Courtland in 1981 because its residents believed they were ignored by the rest of the city. (Courtland, interestingly, does not make the list of top speed traps although it deals with the same Alabama 20 traffic.) Hillsboro, meanwhile, settled in the 1830s and incorporated in 1899, has always jealously guarded its independence, even as its population has dwindled.
It is ironic that two poor communities have traffic enforcement policies that can disproportionately harm lower-income motorists.
“We all share the roads,” said Leah Nelson, research director at the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice. “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, unless the public policy goal is to increase poverty and instability among certain communities.”
Perhaps when the new law goes into effect in 2025, we’ll have a better idea how much traffic enforcement along highways 20 and 72 is justified and how much is done for revenue.