Charleston Daily Mail
Radar in small
towns at issue

Michael A. Jones
Daily Mail Staff

Thursday April 20, 2006

A radar gun reading that says a driver is speeding would seem to be pretty clear.

Instead, it's gotten awfully foggy in recent weeks.

Radar gun controversy has erupted in Clendenin, where citizens are threatening lawsuits over the town's practice of using the readings as primary evidence for speeding tickets.

Now some state lawmakers are saying they need to take another look at legislation restricting small-town police departments from using radar units as the main evidence against speeders.

State law says class four municipalities -- towns with fewer than 2,000 people -- may not use radar as primary evidence in court. Towns still can use the readings as supporting evidence to corroborate an officer's testimony, state officials said.

Confusion in the code's wording sparked reports by a community newspaper, the Clendenin Herald, that the use of radar was illegal. That prompted Jeremy Lindsey to try to change his guilty plea on the speeding citation last month.

Kanawha Circuit Judge James Stucky last week dismissed Lindsey's request and temporarily settled the dispute when he ruled the statute does in fact allows class four municipal police to use the units.

"The law is pretty clear and all he did was apply the statute to the facts of the case," said Will Valentino, Kanawha County assistant prosecutor.

Henry T. Shafer, publisher of the Clendenin Herald, could not be reached for comment.

Clendenin Mayor Bob Ore, also a municipal judge, had dismissed all speeding tickets since early March. Now that Stucky has ruled, Ore said he would no longer automatically dismiss speeding citations, a practice that has created considerable public backlash.

"What (Shafer) is saying is the use of radar is giving Clendenin the identity of a speed trap," Ore said. "He might be missing the point. The fault is the speeding and not the radar."

Ore hopes Stucky's ruling will appear in the next edition of the bi-monthly paper.

Clendenin police officer Michael Dibbs said police must visually observe a car speeding before checking the radar to confirm the vehicle's speed. Dibbs said an experienced officer can accurately estimate how fast a vehicle is traveling without radar.

"They've been challenging it for awhile all due to the fellow who has the town paper," Dibbs said. "It's getting a lot of people in trouble. It's very simple, and I don't understand why (Shafer) can't understand it."

The state Senate tried to amend the law last legislative session, but the bill was rejected in the House of Delegates over concerns about small towns using traffic citations to generate revenue.

"I understand there are fears of speed traps and using it as a way to finance their cities," said Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley. "But to me it's discriminatory if we're allowing larger-size municipalities. It shouldn't matter the size of the town."

Unger, who headed the committee that tried to amend the law, expects the topic to be broached again during the next session.

"It's created such a stir and debate, I don't think it's going to go away," he said.

Lisa Dooley, executive director of the West Virginia Municipal League, said this has been an ongoing problem for small-town police departments, although more so in Clendenin. There are 149 class four towns in the state and nine in Kanawha County.

"I believe when the statue was written, officers weren't properly being trained," Dooley said. "We have worked so hard in the past, and we will continue to try to educate legislators. Something will happen. It will absolutely change."

Kanawha County Commissioner Kent Carper said the scuffle over radar has been a problem highlighted most recently because of the town's financial problems. Carper blames the state legislature for not clarifying the law during the session.

"If the legislature cleared up every vague code, they would actually be busy during the session," Carper said.

He said the lawsuits follow another bizarre twist when two years ago, former Clendenin Municipal Judge Jack Boone ordered an elderly woman to pay her citation with home-cooked pies donated to the town's retirement center.

Ore said that was the only instance he knew of pies being exchanged for a traffic ticket.

Contact writer Michael Jones at 348-4850.

Copyright 2005 Charleston Daily Mail