Friday, 04/20/07
Trying to pre-empt speed traps would compromise safety
Today's Topic: Ban local police from interstates?

Our View

Tennessee is among several Southern states that from time to time are saddled with negative stereotypes, such as the speed trap.

Of course, when a real speed trap crops up, as it did in the Robertson County community of Coopertown last year, it makes matters worse.

State Rep. Phillip Pinion, D-Union City, has moved to prevent more such incidents. A bill moving through the General Assembly would prohibit local police in small towns from enforcing traffic laws on interstate highways within their city limits. Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, sponsors the companion bill in the Senate.

Initially, the bill specified all cities of 10,000 people or less, but Tracy said Wednesday that has now been changed to cities of 5,000 or less. It also exempts local officers who are part of a districtwide drug task force.

Pinion cites not only fairness but the negative impact that overzealous ticketing can have on tourism and interstate commerce in Tennessee, and he should be commended for wanting to do something about traffic enforcement that is guided by profit.

However, this legislation raises some genuine concerns. First, how can a law enforcement officer be accountable for his or her jurisdiction if a portion of it is off-limits? Pinion and Tracy say speed limits on interstate highways in these communities will be enforced by the Tennessee Highway Patrol. If a speeder causes a serious accident, and the local police are called but no troopers are available, should the police do nothing?

To their credit, the lawmakers obtained assurances from the THP that they have sufficient officers to staff these areas, but it is unclear how this will work. Will additional trooper stations be installed around the state? Without a local dispatch station, can the THP respond adequately?

Also, the bill refers to issuance of speeding tickets, but what about other moving violations? Can police stop a drunken driver who is weaving down the interstate at low speeds?

Guilty until proven innocent

Well-intentioned though it may be, this legislation has a fundamental flaw. It presumes local law enforcement will be unable to resist the temptation to make a buck off interstate travelers. By implying their guilt, it also implies that these motorists should be left alone. However, not all travelers are law-abiding. Sometimes they speed recklessly, and pose a danger to others. Because of this, it is better to have more law enforcement officers, not fewer, watching the highways.

It is more appropriate to address local police misconduct when it occurs. In the Coopertown case, complaints led to charges and eventually a suspension of the police chief. Justice was served, even if it didn't happen quickly enough for some.

Like any citizen, police officers should have a presumption of innocence. And they should be allowed to cover their beat. The tourists will keep coming to Tennessee if they know its roads are safe.