Moffett Police allowed on highway
Friday, May 11, 2007 6:13 PM CDT

An amendment to a state statute that passed the Senate and House this year has led to Moffett Police being allowed back on U.S. Highway 64 and State Highway 64D even though the town was banned from the highways in December after being considered a speed trap by the state.

The amendment has caused distress for State Rep. Glen "Bud" Smithson (D-Sallisaw), who said the change in the statute's wording, which allowed Moffett to patrol the highway, was slipped into House Bill 1616 by the bill's author, State Rep. Paul D. Roan (D-Tishomingo). Roan allegedly wanted to help towns in his district that were also ordered off highways.

"It came as a complete surprise," Smithson said of the language in the bill that allowed Moffett back on the highway. "When I found out about it, I was sick. I still am."

According to a May 4 letter from Oklahoma Department of Public Safety Commissioner Kevin Ward to the Town of Moffett, Ward explained that Moffett was being allowed back on the highways as a result of HB 1616 becoming law on April 30.

In December and January, Moffett Police were ordered to cease enforcing traffic and ordinances along Highways 64 and 64D because the town received more than 50 percent of its revenue from traffic tickets. At that time, the Oklahoma Highway Patrol (OHP) was designated as the authority for special traffic-related enforcement on those highways, all in accordance with state statute.

But on April 30, HB 1616 became law and amended those provisions of the statute dealing with special traffic-related enforcement by the OHP.

"In particular, the amendments eliminated the authority of the Attorney General and the Commissioner of the Department of Public Safety (DPS) to designate any portion of a federal aid primary (non interstate) highway or state highway for special traffic-related enforcement by the Oklahoma Highway Patrol (OHP)," Ward wrote.

"Effective April 30, the town may again regulate traffic and enforce traffic-related statutes and ordinances on any street or highway within the town limits."

Smithson explained that HB 1616 was a request bill from DPS and was introduced as a clean-up bill. He explained that clean-up bills help clean up language in existing law. He said that he and Roan usually run the clean-up bills for DPS because they are both retired troopers and are familiar with DPS language.

"No one thought a thing about it," Smithson said of the bill.

They soon discovered, that "Roan had snuck in a woolly booger," Smithson said. A woolly booger is known as a change or controversial item inserted in bills with very few legislators aware of the contents.

"We go by what state law says," Kera Philippi, a spokesperson for the OHP, said. She said when the legislators changed the law, they have to enforce it, which prompted them to rescind their ban.

Philippi said that five towns in the state were affected by the change in statute. She said Caney, Big Cabin, Shamrock, and Stringtown were the other towns that were given back their privileges to patrol U.S. highways in their towns.

Smithson said that Stringtown and another community are in Roan's district and were affected when their police departments were ordered off highways. "Stringtown was affected the way Moffett was affected," Smithson said.

The OHP still has jurisdiction for special enforcement in towns that were banned from enforcing traffic on interstates, such as the case in Roland and Webbers Falls, which were banned from traffic enforcement on Interstate 40.

In the House, HB 1616 passed 99 to 0. In the Senate, the bill passed 46 to 1. The one "no" vote in the Senate came from State Sen. Kenneth Corn (D-Poteau).

Smithson said bill was going through the Senate when Corn caught it. But, Smithson said, Corn caught it right before it was time to vote and he only had time to push the "no" button.

Smithson said it was a good bill the way it was presented, pointing out its strong support.

But this is not the last time that the issue will be brought up in the House. "Most definitely we're going to bring it back next session," Smithson said.

Smithson said Stringtown and another community in Roan's district wanted revenue back. Roan has since told Smithson that his responsibility was to take care of his district. Smithson said Roan also didn't believe legislators should be able to tell law enforcement agencies where they should be allowed to enforce traffic.

"I sorely disagree with him," Smithson said.

Smithson said there is a difference between honest, good police officers, which he said 99.999 percent of the police officers in this county are, and between communities pressuring officers to write tickets to enhance a town's revenue.

"Public safety should not be a revenue raiser," Smithson said.

Smithson said no one on the House floor caught the language until it was too late.

"The bill just ran over the top of me," Smithson said. "I'm sorry. I am sick about it.

"My whole career I devoted to public safety - not raising revenue for the state or county. To think public safety can be sold so cheap, as an excuse to raise revenue, makes me sick."

Moffett was ordered to stop traffic enforcement after the OHP's investigative division audited the town's revenue from speed enforcement after the department received a number of complaints about the town being a speed trap, officials said last year.

Officials explained that Moffett violated a law, enforced by DPS, that states that the revenue a town or city gets from traffic fines can't exceed more than 50 percent of the town's operating budget.

The audit of the town's 2003 and 2004 budgets revealed that 78 percent of Moffett's operating budget was from traffic tickets in 2003, and 84 percent of its operating budget came from traffic tickets in 2004.

In Moffett's case, there was enough evidence that the town violated the law, which prompted the attorney general to order the OHP to take over special traffic enforcement on Highway 64.