The Perfect Speed Trap
Forget the better moustrap. The town of Selma has come up with a way to make money forever—from you.
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“Entering Selma, Population 207,” reads the sign at the city limits six miles north of San Antonio. If you think the brown car parked beside the road belongs to an unlucky motorist, beware. You may be the unlucky motorist. This tiny community, which is somewhat smaller than Dime Box (pop. 313), Fruitvale (pop. 250), and Utopia (pop. 360), has perfected the art of financing its municipal services from the pockets of unwary travelers.
Selma’s speed trap collects an estimated $168,000 a year, or more than $800 for every man, woman, and child who lives there. Even the state of Texas cannot make a claim like that: all state taxes taken together produce an annual revenue of only $215 per Texan.
Despite their growing notoriety in Bexar County, Selma’s officials have shown no signs of halting their lucrative operation. Moreover, they conceal the full extent of their activity by violating several Texas statutes, and, as Texas Monthly found, appear prepared to wage a protracted legal battle to shield their municipal records from public scrutiny.
Located along busy Interstate Highway 35, which serves not only as the principal traffic artery for Central Texas but also as a major international route from Mexico, Selma is perfectly situated for a speed trap. Northbound travelers approach it over the crest of a long hill, at the bottom of which, under a bridge, city authorities place their radar. Even the best-intentioned motorist’s speedometer can creep up a mile or two while descending this slope, and that seems to be all it takes for him to be arrested. Southbound travelers enter at a curve; the radar awaits inconspicuously on an access road.
Like Rhenish princes of old, set astride the lane of commerce to exact tribute from passersby, Selma authorities collect more traffic fines in a month than most cities of their size collect in years. The proceeds go into the municipal treasury, the size of which is a closely guarded secret. Throughout its brief history, Selma has ignored a state law requiring all towns to file copies of their budgets annually with the County Clerk and the Comptroller in Austin. Its chief administrative officer deflects public inquiries with the explanation that the town does not have a budget.
Selma is a peculiar town, and the closer one examines it, the more peculiar it becomes. Lacking a city charter and other familiar attributes of larger cities, it was incorporated as a “general law” town under a statutory provision that permits as few as twenty people to map out some proposed town boundaries, allege that at least 200 people reside within them and petition county authorities to call an election. If the resulting vote favors incorporation, the new community is free to elect a mayor and aldermen, establish municipal services including a police department, and, if it wishes, set up a roadside courtroom to dispense its own brand of justice.
Twenty-nine persons signed the original petition to create Selma in 1964. Seven of them bore the same surname as the current mayor, Francis Friesenhahn. Motivated by an apparent desire to avoid annexation by neighboring Live Oak and faced with the necessity of finding a way to finance their new town, the petitioners took maximum advantage of the site’s revenue-producing potential. Their intention to use it as a speed trap was evident from the beginning. The original plat of town boundaries encompassed a long, narrow corridor along IH-35—beginning at the crest of the vital hill, continuing through nearly two miles of largely uninhabited farmland, and finally fanning out to include the tiny pre-existing settlement on the banks of Cibolo Creek. Except at the settlement itself, the proposed city limits never extended more than a thousand feet from the highway.
The 29 proponents of Selma’s incorporation won the election by the arresting margin of 29 to 2. If the area actually did contain 200 persons, as alleged, a considerable number of them must have been too young to vote or uninterested in the outcome; Texas law, however, does not require proof that a proposed town’s population is actually as great as the petitioners say it is. The mystery of the missing citizens was compounded four months later when the Selma City Council passed an ordinance alleging that their infant town had abruptly grown to more than six hundred residents—the minimum figure, as it turns out, for a community to avail itself of an attractive package of state statutory provisions called Title 28.
Again, proof that there are actually 600 residents is not required, and a town that once qualifies for Title 28 powers does not lose them later if its population declines. And so it was immaterial six years later when the 1970 federal census takers arrived and determined that Selma had a population of 207. Where had the other 400 gone? Plague, perhaps.
Questionable as this petition and ordinance may be, they have allowed Selma to function under color of law for the past ten years. The current 2.2 mile stretch of Interstate highway within its city limits probably produces more revenue per mile—and certainly more per capita—than any other section of highway in Texas.
The records of Selma’s Municipal Court are kept in fifteen-pound clothbound dockets containing 500 numbered pages. There are five rubber-stamped case histories on each page. A cursory examination of a recent volume—city authorities would not permit more than a brief glimpse, despite the fact that court dockets are as public as deed records—revealed that Selma’s police issued 2500 tickets in the five-month period between February 1 and July 2 of this year. All but a handful were for speeding offenses. Fines ranged upward from $32.50 (66 mph in a 55 mph zone); plus a $2.50 state tax. A few tickets had been dismissed, and several others bore the notation, “warning.”
How much revenue does Selma get from its court? The obvious place to look for an answer is the city budget. But the city authorities have refused to disclose Selma’s annual budgets, and at press time Texas Monthly was still awaiting a ruling by Attorney General John Hill that would force them to be made public. In the meantime the brief glimpse provided enough information for an educated guess. Assuming the town is able to collect 400 of its 500 tickets each month at an average fine of $35, it derives a monthly income of $14,000 from its Municipal Court. Based on a population of 207, court revenue alone yields $811.59 per year for every resident, or $168,000 in all. A generous kitty for civic betterment. By way of comparison, San Antonio’s revenue from court fines works out to $2.63 per capita this year.
Needless to say, Selma’s residents have one of the lowest property tax rates of any city in Texas. Selma is indeed a peculiar town.
Many residents of San Antonio and New Braunfels have learned to be wary when passing through Selma, but others who expect the same tolerance that the Department of Public Safety gives statewide (usually up to 61 mph in a 55 mph zone) may be headed for trouble.* (Under the 55 mph limit, speeding is the rule and not the exception; most drivers take a few miles’ tolerance for granted. According to the latest Highway Department speed surveys [July 1974], 62 per cent of all Texas motorists are going over 55, and 20 per cent are going over 60.) One knowledgeable San Antonian was holding himself to a cautious 50 as he approached Selma recently; another car passed him at a speed he estimated at ten miles faster. There was nothing the San Antonian could do. Sure enough, the patrol car under the bridge pulled out, lights flashing. “It was like watching another swimmer being attacked by a shark,” he says.
Certain similarities emerge from the complaints of motorists who have been stopped there. Some say that the Selma police tend to bully drivers. A deliveryman for an Austin clothing store was arrested in the company truck last June; the policeman, he says, “came up to the truck with, you know, the thumbs-in-the-belt type deal, and the rock jaw, and gave me a real hard time about it.”
Another frequent complaint is that the police add on an extra ten miles to the alleged speed, thus charging a driver who was actually going 56 or 57 with going 66 or 67 and making the case harder to fight in court. The Selma prosecutor says he does not prosecute drivers for going less than ten miles over the limit and, not surprisingly, the town’s police never seem to present him with tickets charging less than that. But irate motorists vehemently insist that precisely this sort of shenanigan occurs. A prominent Seguin citizen, returning to his country home around midnight after a football game last year, says he had the Cruise-Control on his luxury car set at the then-lawful speed of 65. Coming down the hill into Selma he saw a lightless car in the shadows and checked his speedometer—which read, he says, between 65 and 66. He was arrested and charged with going 77 mph. “I said, ‘That’s not true and you know it,’” he recalls. “The officer just told me, ‘You don’t have to come to court. Just send your check by mail.’” He now bitterly refers to the experience as “highway robbery,” musing “you want to protect the police officers and give them their rightful image—there’s so much prejudice against them and they deserve all the help you can give them. And then to have something like this, that to my way of thinking just preys on innocent victims, why it’s ridiculous.”
Representative Bennie Bock of New Braunfels, and San Antonio Express columnist Paul Thompson both report receiving this same type of complaint repeatedly. The absence of tickets for less than ten miles over the limit suggests that where there’s smoke there may be fire. A Texas Monthly editor, passing through Selma last spring in a line of seven or eight cars all traveling, at a speed between 55 and 58, noticed the patrol car roar away from the access road in hot pursuit. The officers picked out the fourth car, a flashy yellow Chevrolet with out-of-state plates, and pulled it over. When last seen they were presumably ticketing its black driver.
Some motorists who freely admit they were speeding are outraged at the heavy-handed treatment they receive if they fail to appear in court. “Failure to appear” is a separate and additional offense in any traffic court, for good and obvious reasons. But Selma, they say, carries it to excess, almost as though the city authorities would prefer that a motorist miss his trial so that his fine can be drastically increased. An ad salesman for a San Antonio weekly newspaper lost his ticket before trial. He says he called Selma and they promised to send him a new notice, which he never received. More than a year later, he says, “They called me here at home on Sunday and said, ‘Come over right away and give us a lot of money or we’re going to put you in jail forever.’ They wanted $108.50. So I said, ‘Well, I don’t have all that money right now.’ And they said, ‘That’s all right, we’ll take part, or all, or whatever.’ So I went over and gave them a check for $51. I still owe them the rest. Another motorist says that when he failed to show up in court—without any real excuse, he admits—Selma authorities added $200 to his fine.
Nonresidents of Texas must post bond or pay cash on the spot, and the Selma city hall is located directly on the highway to facilitate these collections. Residents of Texas may simply mail in their fine. Many choose this path because their only alternative is to plead not guilty in open court and Selma’s court is closed all day every day except for one afternoon a month.
Despite this deterrent, hordes of motorists arrive at the yellow stucco, tile-roofed city hall of vaguely Spanish design to contest their tickets at the appointed hour of 1 pm on the first Tuesday of each month. Many are still waiting as late as 6 or 7 pm, for the judge’s docket is often very heavy. “Easily 95 per cent are traffic cases,” his honor acknowledges. With the naiveté of ordinary citizens unfamiliar with the judicial process, they arrive expecting their own case to be heard at 1 pm. If they do not arrive on time they may be cited for “failure to appear” and fined an additional sum; if they do arrive on time, they may have to spend an entire afternoon awaiting their hearing, which characteristically results in their prompt conviction. Understandably, some get restless and capitulate, forfeiting their hearing, and pay their fines at a convenient window—a decision which does not dismay their accusers.
On a recent visit to the cheerless courtroom, an interested spectator noticed that the proceedings were conducted at the judge’s bench in low tones inaudible to others in attendance. Flanked by American and Texas flags, the judge (John Starcke of Seguin) considered the cases expeditiously, aided by an array of clerks and bailiffs, some wearing Levis and pullover knit shirts. The presence of an interested spectator who had not come to pay or fight touched off a wave of nervousness among the officials, who smilingly but repeatedly sat down beside him to ask why he was there, and who, upon being advised that the spectator had simply come to watch, retreated out of earshot to engage in whispered huddles and sidelong glances.
Outside the courtroom the remainder of the city hall interior is devoted to a Court Clerk’s office in which two secretaries sift through a slag heap of manila-jacketed traffic complaint files, the teller’s window for payment of fines, and a room labeled “Police Department.” Regardless of the day or time, no other activity appears to be taking place, except for a back office occupied by burly, shirtsleeved City Administrator Tom Holland, who also serves as police chief.
It was Holland who refused Texas Monthly access to the town budgets and the court docket, at one point even denying that such records existed.
How can this sort of thing keep going on? Young Representative Bock asked himself that question and concluded that it shouldn’t. The result was House Bill 550 of the 1973 Legislature, which prohibited towns of less than 5000 population from using radar on Interstate highways.
“I think the majority of the driving public using the Interstate highway system should be answerable to the Texas Highway Patrol,” he said, “and not the whims of a select few municipalities who oftentimes depend upon such speed traps as the sole source of revenue and the sole purpose for existence… The city of Selma does not build and maintain those highways and as far as I’m concerned when they are using the speed laws of this state for revenue purposes only, they have no right to do so… It gives law enforcement a bad name.”
In effect, Bock’s bill reserved to the Department of Public Safety the responsibility for enforcing speed laws along the Interstates in the very smallest towns, as it does now in rural areas, while allowing larger cities to share that responsibility with the DPS. No one testified against it except a Selma policeman.
The bill easily passed both houses of the legislature, only to meet with an unexpected fate: Governor Dolph Briscoe’s veto. “With the mounting traffic accidents on our highways,” the governor said, “we obviously need all the help we can get in enforcing our laws.” His aides also unearthed a 1935 decision of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals holding unconstitutional a legislative requirement that policemen in cities over 10,000 population wear uniforms and badges when making arrests. The governor interpreted this decision to mean that it was “beyond the authority of the legislature” to regulate small-town speed traps as Bock had tried to do.
The Texas statute books are filled, however, with laws that differentiate between towns on the basis of their size. Some of these, called “bracket bills,” have such narrow population limits (e.g., “all cities between 290,000 and 300,000”) that they artfully apply to only one city and are pretty clearly unconstitutional. But numerous others apply to dozens of towns, as Bock’s zero-to-five-thousand classification did. Briscoe himself chose to sign several bills last session that allow cities over 5000 to do things cities under 5000 cannot do—operate museums, libraries, and tennis courts, for example. He found no constitutional infirmities with these.
The ultimate test is whether the discrimination on the basis of city sizes represents a “reasonable” classification.
Is it “reasonable” to forbid small towns to operate tennis courts and “unreasonable” to forbid them to operate radar speed traps? Deciding what is reasonable can be a complex legal process, but the validity of Bock’s bill seems to be much more of an open question than Briscoe made it appear.
Bock himself has described Briscoe’s argument as “a good smokescreen.” The powerful Texas Municipal League, the organized lobbying arm of city governments across the state and a force to be reckoned with in, gubernatorial politics, made no secret of its opposition to the bill once it had landed on Briscoe’s desk. To the extent that any small town generates substantial revenue from Interstate highway radar traps, the bill would have cost money and might even have forced the local politicians to make up the loss by raising the taxes of the citizens who had elected them. Briscoe felt the heat. Without even conducting an investigation of the Selma situation, he blindly vetoed the bill.
Thanks to Briscoe, Selma’s operation continues to thrive, as do similar practices (often euphemistically called “strict law enforcement”) in numerous towns. Among them:
- Georgetown (pop. 7425), on Interstate 35 north of Austin. Officers lie in wait under the Texas 29 overpass, an uninhabited stretch on the edge of town.
- Allen (pop. 1940), on U.S. 75 between Dallas and McKinney. “Where pride creates progress… from Schooner to Lunar. Speed Limits Radar Enforced.” The Rowlett Road overpass is a favorite spot.
- Live Oak (pop. 2779), on IH-35 between Selma and San Antonio. Less blatant than its neighbor but equally avaricious, Live Oak draws thirteen per cent of its municipal revenue from court fines. Mayor John Harper insists that less than one per cent comes from IH-35 radar, an assertion that many Bexar County motorists find hard to believe. Harper lobbied vigorously to have Bock’s bill vetoed.
- Cedar Park (pop. 300), on U.S. 183 in Williamson County. The city council decided last summer to establish a police department and pay for it with traffic tickets after hearing a speech by Daniel Hansmire, a policeman in the Bexar County town of Schertz, four miles from Selma. Hansmire said Cedar Park could earn thousands of dollars a month by writing as few as two tickets per day, and predicted the department could show a profit within one month.
- Webster (pop. 3250), between Houston and Galveston in the NASA area. “A notorious one oyer the years,” according to a spokesman for the American Automobile Association. There are frequent complaints that Webster’s speeding arrests tend to escalate into DWI charges. The town is currently under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice for alleged harassment of an astronaut’s wife.
- Port Isabel (pop. 3740), at South Padre Island. This resort city uses tactics like strict radar enforcement in school zones at 7 pm on summer Saturdays.
- The AAA, which keeps a file on the problems its members experience with local traffic authorities, has received complaints about speed law enforcement in the following Texas towns: Three Rivers (pop. 1820), Freer (pop. 2850), Alvin (pop. 11,100), Leon Valley (pop. 1960), Rosenberg (pop. 14,528), Haltom City (pop. 28,387), San Diego (pop. 4500), Belton (pop. 8820), and Vidor (pop. 10,000).
The popularity of radar is growing rapidly in Texas. Towns as obscure as Blooming Grove (on Texas 22 in Navarro County) are finding the equipment indispensable, although popular distaste for speed traps usually keeps the worst abuses under control. But Selma is the richest, toughest granddaddy of them all, and publicity has so far done nothing to deter the tactics there. (San Antonio Express writers Kemper Diehl and Jim Price ran a three-part exposé last December, to no visible effect, and the Alamo city’s leading speed-trap foe, columnist Paul Thompson, says, “Most of the places that do this sort of thing get embarrassed and shut down when you shine a light on them, but Selma hasn’t changed a bit.”) What is a motorist going to do?
The immediate answer, of course, is to slow down before you reach the Selma city limits. Not just down to 55—a drift upward of a mile or two may cost you more than thirty dollars. Slow down to 45 (and smile). After all, it’s only 2.2 miles through the entire town. They’ll be disappointed you’re driving so watchfully, but what can they do? Don’t go any slower or they may cite you for obstructing traffic.
The motorist’s second weapon, a collective one, is the boycott. Avoid the town or, if that’s impossible, avoid the merchants. The AAA uses this technique on the most bloodthirsty speed traps, and it often helps to produce a new crop of elected officials. The AAA is conservative about this; only thirty-two in the country are currently listed: none is in Texas, not even Selma—an oversight that the AAA hints may soon be corrected. The problem is that the only businesses in Selma that cater to travelers are a Phillips 66 station and a couple of cafes.
If you are arrested anyway, your best bet is to appeal. Texas law permits you to have an entirely new trial in the County Court, down in the somewhat more civilized precincts of the Bexar County Courthouse. Few people know this, judging from the rarity of appeals from Selma. The only problem is that an appeal bond (twice the amount of the fine, up to $50) is required while you do so, and, if you lose, the County Court tacks on some heavy court costs: $36.50 is customary. But the bright side is that your case may never come to trial; Selma authorities seem to have little stomach for pursuing motorists outside their local courtroom. “These people don’t seem to prosecute their appeals,” says Bock. “I’d say they’re probably concerned about their own status if they did.” Whatever the reason, speeding appeals tend to drop into the great Bexar County judicial oubliette and languish there indefinitely. The Seguin motorist who appealed his cruise-control conviction last winter has never heard another word.
So much for the motorist; what about Selma itself? Representative Bock is trying to find out what the average speeding fine, per-mile-an-hour, is in Texas towns; armed with that information he may introduce a bill requiring all localities to forfeit any excess to the state treasury. The hole in that plan is obvious: a town could still exist entirely on radar revenue. If the average fine is half what Selma now collects, there is nothing to prevent Selma from writing twice as many tickets; the sea is full of fish.
Then too, there is no assurance that Briscoe would refrain from vetoing legislative attempts to cope with speed traps; the Municipal League hasn’t lost any clout. And TML Executive Director Richard Brown is markedly unenthusiastic about corrective laws. Unless the Governor’s cooperation can be obtained, Selma may continue in business for a long time to come.