Motorists would be wise to slow down as they approach the tiny town of Damascus in the Ozark foothills.
A May 2017 order that found Damascus police were running an illegal speed trap and that banned them from patrolling two highways running through the city of roughly 400 residents expired with the arrival of 2019.
In a statement Wednesday, the town's attorney, Beau Wilcox, said Damascus is now "lawfully entitled to resume its patrolling duties." But he added, "We are fully cognizant of the fact that this does not mean that the department can simply conduct itself in the same fashion as it did before the sanctions were handed down.
"However, the ensuing 19 months demonstrated that excessive speeding through the city along Highway 65 remains a very real and valid concern that the Damascus Police Department is best equipped to address," he said.
The now-former prosecuting attorney who issued the ban, Cody Hiland, had halted local police patrols on U.S. 65, which carries traffic to Branson, the Buffalo National River and other Ozark attractions, and on a portion of Arkansas 124. Patrols were left up to the Arkansas State Police and sheriff's offices in the two counties that Damascus straddles, Faulkner and Van Buren.
The new prosecutor, Carol Crews, who took office Tuesday, said Wednesday that she was "evaluating all options related to the status of Damascus to patrol."
"This office will be vigilant in making sure the city doesn't violate the speed trap provisions in the future," Crews said.
The return to patrols followed an unsuccessful court challenge by the city to overturn the ban, which was ordered effective through the end of Hiland's term. Hiland left office early to become U.S. attorney of the Eastern District of Arkansas, based in Little Rock, but his interim successor, Luke Ferguson, agreed that the ban should continue until 2019, when Hiland's term normally would have ended.
After the ban, Damascus saw its police force plummet from eight full- and part-time officers to one full-time and one part-time officer.
In February, a circuit judge rejected the city's claims that the state's speed-trap law was unconstitutionally vague and arbitrary. Then in August, the same judge rejected the city's claims that financial data used to decide the speed-trap issue were not properly interpreted and said he found that the city had violated the state's speed-trap law, "by clear and convincing evidence."
Further, the sanctions were "necessary and proper under the law," the judge said.
Wilcox said Damascus "has no intentions whatsoever of running afoul of the speed trap law in the future and the [police] department ... is mindful that its resumption of any patrols must be conducted cautiously and with an eye toward ensuring that the most aggressive offenders are prosecuted."
Wilcox said Crews "is amenable to meeting" with him, Damascus Mayor L.B. Pavatt and the current police officers "in the very near future to discuss ways that the city's officers can perform their duties in a manner that is legally compliant, responsible, and diligent."
Damascus City Clerk Pamela Mahan said no police were on duty Wednesday, a regular day off for the full-time officer. The other officer was on a holiday break, she said.
"I don't know if they've written any tickets or not," she said, noting that the full-time officer is scheduled to return to work Friday.
Under Arkansas law, a city is in violation of the speed-trap law if its revenue from traffic fines and costs related to its traffic citations exceeds 30 percent of the town's total expenses, less capital expenses and debt service, in the preceding year. A city also is in violation if more than 50 percent of its misdemeanor tickets issued on a state highway are for people driving 10 mph or less over the speed limit.
For motorists passing through Damascus, the speed limit on U.S. 65 entering the city drops from 60 mph to 45 mph for the roughly two-mile stretch in the city limits. Wilcox said the change in speed is clearly marked "at both ends of town" with warning signs before the lower speed limit even takes effect.
A Section on 01/03/2019
Print Headline: Limit on Arkansas town's speeding patrols lapses