By Shirley Downing
August 16, 2006
OAKLAND -- The Honda sedan flew over a rise and roared onto the screen of Lt. Ronny Graves' radar gun.

"Fifty-six in a 45," Graves said one recent afternoon as he flipped on his siren and blue lights, and took off in pursuit.

A half-mile away, the car from Kansas pulled over. The driver said he didn't see warning signs on U.S. 64 to slow down.

The driver could contest the ticket, go to driving school or pay a fine and court costs of $130. But he can no longer pay $50 to get the ticket dismissed and keep it off his driving record.

Welcome to Tennessee's fastest-growing town, a "debt-free" village with a reputation as a speed trap. Oakland officials deny the claim, pointing to warning signs and calibrated drops in speed limit along a 5.5-mile stretch of federal highway patrolled by town cops.

That part of U.S. 64 sees 20,000 vehicles hurtling through the town on that hot asphalt each day, resulting in about 5,000 traffic tickets a year.

A Circuit Court lawsuit filed earlier this year said Oakland has been extorting money from motorists and violating civil rights.

Since late last year, and contrary to state law, Oakland has allowed motorists to pay court costs plus a $50 fee to get their speeding ticket dismissed -- and off their driving record.

It is not clear how many motorists paid such fines, but the practice has ceased.

The lawsuit may soon be settled.

Plaintiff's attorney Charles Cary of Bolivar mailed a copy of the proposed agreement to Oakland City Atty. Richard Myers Monday but declined to comment until the order is signed.

According to Myers, details of the proposed agreement are:

Oakland will no longer assess motorists a $50 fee to dismiss a traffic ticket.

If someone charged with a municipal offense fails to appear at a hearing, they will be held in contempt only "after a notice and an opportunity to be heard at a contempt hearing."

Oakland will dismiss the ticket against the lead plaintiff in Cary's lawsuit and refund $50 fines paid by three co-plaintiffs.

Oakland will pay court costs.

Myers said Oakland City Court Judge James Gallagher no longer assesses fines or fees to dismiss tickets, as he'd been doing in the mistaken belief it was legal to do so.

The Tennessee Municipal Technical Advisory Service (MTAS) recently wrote Oakland stating Tennessee law doesn't allow a city court judge to impose a fine as a condition of dismissal.

Myers said Gallagher began the practice after an MTAS official had indicated it was OK, but more recently, MTAS made a legal search of the question.

"As soon as we heard we couldn't, we changed it to what we were doing before," Myers said.

Gallagher declined to talk to a reporter about the matter.

"I don't think judges should be doing interviews," he said.

Myers said it was not clear how many people "got their tickets dismissed with that condition during the six or seven months" the practice was in effect.

The only ones who can expect a refund of the fines under the settlement are the "four named plaintiffs in the lawsuit," he said.

Mayor William Mullins has consistently denied that Oakland is operating a speed trap, saying police are legitimately enforcing traffic laws.

Fines and court revenue, including charges for criminal offenses, was $706,270 last year out of a town budget of $12 million, officials said.

Oakland has 13 full-time police and 15 reserve officers to patrol a town that has mushroomed in numbers and square miles in recent years. Local population estimates range from 3,169 reported by the Fayette County Chamber of Commerce to 6,000 reported by Mullins.

Police Chief Bob Tisdale, 55, is a former Trailways bus driver and a Fayette County Sheriff's Department deputy.

He grew up in Frayser, and works out of an office at Oakland City Hall decorated with John Wayne memorabilia.

He offers no apologies for focusing police efforts along U. S. 64.

New subdivisions border the highway from Oakland to the Shelby County line, and residents' safety is at stake, he said.

The divided four-lane highway is a major thoroughfare between Memphis and Pickwick Lake, and is often thick with weekend traffic.

Tisdale said officers have a liberal speed tolerance, but not for drivers who abuse the law. One recent Sunday morning, officers clocked a car at 85 mph roaring past the McDonald's restaurant.

He's also aware of road safety as a parent. His only son died at age 17 in a traffic accident.

Other than speeders, Oakland has no crime to speak of, Tisdale said.

"We try to be ahead of the game. A lot of crooks that come through here or have drugs are taken down in traffic stops. That is where probably 80 percent of the arrests are taken down, on traffic stops," the chief said.

-- Shirley Downing: 529-2387