Are You Fast Or Furious?
By Cherry Lane
It was around 8 pm on a dark April night when my best friend and I exited I-49 near Alexandria and followed the GPS down a country road with lots of trees. We didn’t know where we were.
We had spent the day in Natchitoches, but had driven up by way of Highway 171 and later wound through the Kisatchie National Forest. We decided not to come home the same way because the road through the forest was bad and curvy. I was sure it was pitch black out there at night, too.
Like I said, we didn’t know where we were. All we knew was that the GPS said we would turn left in one mile and we were very hungry and wanted to find a place to eat.
The speed limit was 55, then it dropped to 45. We rounded a curve and, all of a sudden, saw ourselves heading towards a small town. We were looking for our turn, but right before we reached it, blue lights started to flash behind us.
We wondered what was going on, and my friend pulled off the road. I was scared because my best friend, who was driving, wasn’t Caucasian. He was from a Asian country, and I know all too well about racial profiling, especially in small towns. Also, its being dark didn’t help matters.
The officer was icy. He said that my best friend had been speeding and also that he had a brake light out. My friend said that he had had his car inspected just a few days earlier. The officer didn’t care. My friend also said that he’d never received a ticket before and the officer responded, “Good for you.”
It turns out the speed limit drops to 35 near the curve but we didn’t know that. My best friend was double cited. And our fun day was ruined after he accrued over $300 worth of fines. Welcome to Woodworth, La.
A Second Run-In
About two years later, I left work mid-day to head to Shreveport to pick up a puppy I had waited months for. I decided to take Highway 165 because, once again, I didn’t like traveling Highway 171. I hadn’t traveled past Kinder on Highway 165 since my best friend and I had come back from Natchitoches.
I stayed vigilant by watching the speed limit signs down Highway 165. I would slow down and speed up accordingly. I was aware cops patrol the area heavily, but I’m not much of a speeder anyway.
I checked my GPS a few miles before Alexandria and breathed a sigh of relief that I was about to get on the interstate. However, I was dismayed that I had another two hours to drive. It had been an easy drive so far, though.
The speed limit dropped soon, and I slowed down to 45 or so. This town looked familiar. I realized it was Woodworth. I turned right at the stop light and wondered what the speed limit was because I didn’t see a sign at the moment. I looked ahead and saw what look like the wilds of Louisiana. I was leaving the town behind apparently. Then I passed a cop.
I watched in my rearview mirror as he pulled out and turned on his blue lights. I vented my frustration. “You have got to be kidding me,” I wailed.
I pulled over and was fuming underneath my calm exterior as the officer came over.
He said he caught me speeding. Once again I was involved in a traffic stop in the 35 mph zone. He asked me where I was headed, and I said, “Shreveport, to pick up a puppy.” He said, “Oh, what kind?” I told him a poodle mix and he asked, “That’s one of those small dogs?” I said, “About 15 pounds.”
Then he asked for my driver’s license, registration and proof of insurance. I handed them over. My passenger encouraged me to stay calm and said, “Maybe he’ll let you go because you have a clean record.” I said, “No, I know these cops. He’s writing my ticket.”
Sure enough, the officer came back with a citation — and a fine of $170. He told me to have a nice day. I wasn’t nice enough to respond.
I stayed angry, with what I consider righteous anger, almost the rest of the way to Shreveport. The money wasn’t what angered me, although a $170 fine would put a dent in my and the average person’s pocketbook. I was mad at what seemed to me an abuse of the office of police officer.
OK, I accidentally broke the law. But apparently the police of Woodworth sit in the same spot all day and all night taking advantage of people passing through who don’t know where they are or that the speed limit dropped to a ridiculously low level in an area where there is nothing to slow down for.
As I returned through Woodworth that evening, I took note of the speed limit signs. There are 45 mph signs from each direction and a small 35 mph stretch in between that is often missed by out-of-towners. The Woodworth police are taking advantage of the layout of their city and its proximity to I-49. I didn’t see the police officer in his spot this time, but that was because he had some other unfortunate soul pulled over already at the nearby gas station.
When I had made my right turn that morning, the speed limit sign was attached to a pole right at the corner. I didn’t see it because I was focused on my turn. I’d be willing to bet nobody else sees it either.
The officer didn’t care what I was doing, where I was going or why I was speeding, although he knew the reason for the latter. I obviously thought the speed limit was still 45. He was polite, but that made the lack of mercy worse. He was out for the bucks, and no excuse would’ve been good enough for him to give me a warning or lesser violation.
If you think all of this sounds bad, wait until you hear Patricia Parker’s story.
Patricia Parker vs. Town Of Woodworth
On Jan 4, 2009, Parker was headed to the Methodist Center in Woodworth. She worked in the town Woodworth, but lived in Alexandria. She had two passengers in the car with her — co-workers. Everyone in the vehicle was African-American. It was 6 am, and Parker was almost at work.
After Parker turned off Highway 165, onto Coulee Crossing Road, a Woodworth officer, David Godwin, followed her for two miles. He continued to follow her as she turned onto Methodist Parkway. Then he turned on his lights. He later tried to justify his actions by saying he “just happened to be turning onto Methodist Parkway at the same time as Parker.”
Godwin pulled Parker over after she turned onto Methodist Parkway even though she hadn’t broken any laws. She had followed the speed limit and used her blinker. Her crime seemed to be that she was driving at 6 am.
Godwin later said, “So I stopped her to see what — what was going on and why they were going back there.”
Parker responded to Godwin’s inquiries. She was headed to work. Godwin believed her but asked for her license, proof of insurance and registration anyway, which she provided.
Godwin’s State of Louisiana computer said Parker’s license was suspended. Parker assured him that was incorrect as she had documents to prove that she had paid the fine to reinstate her license. Godwin responded that he had to abide by what the computer said. He also pointed out that the registration on the Dodge pickup, belonging to Parker’s boyfriend, was expired. Also, Godwin said the truck had no insurance because Parker’s license wasn’t valid. The early morning traffic stop ended with four citations, with fees adding up to $1,060.
Godwin then inquired if any of the passengers in the car had a driver’s license so they could drive the truck from the scene. They answered to the negative.
Parker then called her supervisor at the Methodist Center to meet her and bring someone to drive the truck to the Methodist Center’s parking lot. Godwin then said he wouldn’t let anyone drive the truck because the owner wasn’t there to OK it. He later had the truck towed — another $193.61.
Then, when Godwin and her boyfriend went to pick up the vehicle, they were told that the police department had placed a hold on it and that it could not be retrieved until Godwin’s fines were paid.
That’s when Godwin and her boyfriend got the state police involved. A state policeman called the Woodworth police to tell them they had no right to keep a hold on the vehicle. The vehicle was then able to be redeemed after Parker paid the towing fee.
The citations — Godwin would have to see the mayor about those. This is because the mayor of Woodworth is also the magistrate. He holds what is called the mayor’s court. One could easily argue by holding both positions the mayor would more easily take the side of his town — especially since Parker lived in Alexandria and not in Woodworth.
Parker went to the mayor’s court on Jan. 22, where she waited her turn to speak with Mayor David Butler. She presented her proof of insurance and registration for the truck she had been driving (apparently the new registration card had simply not been put in the vehicle yet). The registration charge was dismissed. Then Parker pointed out that her driver’s license was not suspended at the time of the traffic stop. She wanted more time to prove it and he gave it.
Parker went back to Butler on Feb. 18, with documents that proved her point. She had paid her fine on July 18, 2008, and had a new driver’s license. However, Butler still didn’t drop the charges relating to a suspended license.
He asked Parker how much money she had on her. She said approximately $300. Then Butler told Parker she should agree to pay a fine for the unlawful use of a driver’s license. The cost was $215 and she paid it.
Then Woodworth issued a bill with all four charges still on it, even though the registration charge had been dismissed and Parker had paid for the unlawful use of a driver’s license charge. She had until March 18 to finish paying the balance.
March 18 arrived, and Butler never showed up to court, where Parker was going to appeal to him to get her charges dropped.
In April, Parker sued the City of Woodworth and Godwin, on the grounds of being subject to an illegal traffic stop.
June brought with it more surprises to this twisted case. Woodworth issued a warrant for the arrest of Parker for failure to pay her balance. The warrant stated that she now owed even more than the original amount of the four citations. She showed the paper to her lawyer, Edward Larvadain, Jr.
Then, on Aug., 31, officers went to Parker’s home and arrested her in front of her children. She spent 25 days in jail.
Larvadain decided to represent Parker, for the sake of justice rather than the profile of the case. He said, “You have to understand, Woodworth is different from everyplace else. All Woodworth cares about is generating money. They don’t care who it is. They stop people to get money.”
Then ensued a six-year battle in court.
Woodworth claimed that the $215 Parker paid equaled an admission of guilt. Therefore, the traffic stop couldn’t be illegal.
A judge in trial court threw out Parker’s case, but it was reinstated when the case went to appeals. The court’s opinion was that payment of the fine did not mean Parker pleaded guilty to the charges.
The case went back to trial. Butler, Godwin and Parker all testified.
Since Godwin hadn’t suspected Parker of committing any crime and he admitted nothing looked suspicious, the court said there was no basis for the traffic stop. In fact, Godwin couldn’t come up with any legal reason for stopping Parker when he testified.
The court said the Fourth Amendment protects people, such as Godwin, from such an act and cited a court case from 2014 in which the protections of the Fourth Amendment are outlined.
“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
The court then stated, “The evidence indisputably shows Parker was a permissive, validly licensed, driver covered under the owner of the vehicle’s policy.”
The judge ruled in Parker’s favor. Woodworth had to dole out $30,000 for damages, reimburse Parker for her towing fee and license fine, and pay court costs.
Woodworth decided to appeal. On March 15, 2015, the court came to a final decision, and had very strong opinions. The first point was that Godwin had no right to pull over Parker in the first place. She had violated no laws.
“Officer Godwin’s testimony demonstrates that he genuinely believes he has a right to make these ‘check-em-out stops’ and that this is normal procedure for the police officers of the Town of Woodworth.
“Godwin’s testimony shows a complete lack of knowledge of the restraints imposed upon police conduct by the U.S. Constitution and the laws and Constitution of the State of Louisiana.”
The court said because another automobile had turned onto Methodist Parkway after Parker had been pulled over, “Absent a traffic violation, so far as can be gleaned from this record, the only visible attribute of Parker and her passengers that might have distinguished them from other motorists turning on Methodist Parkway was they are all African-Americans.”
Larvadain, Parker’s lawyer, had said, “These officers have been doing wrong so long, they have begun to believe that wrong is right,” during the proceedings. The court quoted this line and said, “We could not say it better.”
Woodworth had been trying to claim that $30,000 was too much money to award Parker, but the court intimated that $30,000 was a small sum when they said, “It is difficult to calculate a just amount of damages which would fully compensate a victim such as Parker for the losses and indignities she suffered in this case. Just her unlawful imprisonment for twenty five days renders the small sun awarded Parker anything but excessive.”
Conflict of Interest
This case can be seen as both a racial case — a 2000 census showed Woodworth is 90 percent Caucasian — and a conflict of interest case. We know Parker was African-American, but we also know she wasn’t from Woodworth.
Not only are cops in small towns usually reluctant to pull over residents of their town because everyone knows one another, there is the issue of revenue.
The town is notoriously known as a speed trap. But people not familiar with the area or who don’t drive by much, are almost guaranteed to get a ticket, even if they’re careful, because of a simple fact — the location where the speed limit dips from 45 to 35 mph.
One lawmaker, a former sheriff named Steve Pylant, sponsored a bill in 2014 that would require any town in the state that receives over half of town revenue from tickets to install a sign with blinking lights informing the public that they were in speed trap territory.
The lawmaker “particularly has a problem with Woodworth, which has annexed a sizable strip along Interstate 49 that’s populated by nothing but pine trees.” In other words, the city limits extend into an area that looks like it is in the middle of nowhere. People traveling through don’t realize they are inside city limits until it’s too late and they get stopped by the cop.
According to The Advocate, Pylant said, “People agreed with me, but they have small towns in their districts and they’d be going against their constituents. Everybody would tell me they thought something needed to be done. They just didn’t want their name associated with it.” The bill died in the House.
Other bills have been put forth to target speed trap towns, but nothing has hampered the problem.
Woodworth had a population of 1,131 people in 2017, according to the United States Census Bureau. Back in 2008, the Legislature considered a bill that would cap how much money towns could receive from tickets. For Woodworth, the cap would’ve been 20 percent. The argument for the bill was speed traps hurt tourism. Nobody wants to travel through a speed trap town, even if it has beautiful scenery. It is too risky.
Then-representative Hollis Downs of Ruston who advocated for this bill said of speed traps, “This is not about public safety. … It’s about money, and lots and lots of it.” The legislation stated, “A local law enforcement body shall not write civil or criminal citations for violation of speed limit laws and speed-related ordinances within the boundaries of and the outskirts of the municipality where there is minimal commercial or residential development or local traffic with egress to the highway.” The bill failed to pass.
In retaliation, then-representative Joe McPherson of Woodworth put forth a bill that would create a ban on the state regulating traffic quotas. The state wouldn’t be able to gauge officers by the number of arrests they make or citations they write. The law passed the Louisiana senate a month after the bill capping speed traps failed.
In 2009, a bill passed into law that says that fines generated from tickets written for people going 10 mph or under the limit on interstate highways will go to the state rather than the local government. Still, this law has done little to impede the flow of money into speed trap towns. There are plenty of ways to get around it if one is so minded.
The Need For Revenue
OK, so Woodworth is a speed trap and makes 51.5 percent of its money from fines. But why? Well, that’s where things get even more screwed up.
The website for the Town of Woodworth shows the businesses in the area consist of a post office, forest services, a landscaping company, two pharmacies, a transportation company, trailer sales, gold cart sales, a lubricant company, a mill, gun shop, and a maintenance company — not much economic diversity there.
If there are few businesses and few residents, then Woodworth isn’t making very much from sales tax or property tax. Therefore they make money by ticketing out-of-towners. And they will ticket you for everything they possibly can to fund their town. One article I read even cited a newspaper story out of Alexandria in which a woman said she was detained by Woodworth police for half an hour while in labor.
However, this isn’t just a Woodworth thing, although I could argue Woodworth is the trickiest speed trap. A total of 25 cities in Louisiana made over 50 percent of their income from fines last year. One-third of the cities were on Highway 165. Woodworth was actually near the bottom of the list.
Fenton receives a whopping 94.9 percent of its income from fines; Georgetown, 92.2 percent; Baskin, 89.3 percent; Henderson, 84.6 percent; Robeline, 84.4 percent; Reeves, 84.4 percent; Pioneer, 84.4 percent; Tullos, 80.3 percent; Forest Hill, 75.5 percent; Creola, 72.4; McNary, 71.1 percent; Clayton, 69.5 percent; Pollock, 67.49 percent; Merryville, 67.47 percent; Gilbert, 65.4 percent; Port Vincent, 65 percent; Mangham, 63.27 percent; Fisher, 62.23 percent; Dodson, 62.1 percent; Bonita, 59.3 percent; Pine Prairie, 56.1 percent; Tickfaw, 52.4 percent; Woodworth, 51.5 percent; Pearl River, 50.6 percent; and Florien, 49.7 percent.
Why should outsiders pay the price to run a city they have nothing to do with? All of these tickets have nothing to do with the law. Police are abusing the purpose of the law by giving out as many tickets as possible to fund their cities. According to the Advocate, Jan Moller, executive director of the Baton Rouge Budget Project said, “Fines are now a way to run a government. It speaks to the need for a more diversified and stable tax base,” and Robert Scott, head of the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana said, “That’s the symbol of a broken system when you have to depend on preying on people to pay your bills. If you’re protecting people, that’s OK, but if you’re protecting services, you need to re-examine.”
Speed Trap Towns’ Arguments
Of course, these small towns are fighting for survival. They are not going to give up their means of making revenue easily, so they come up with excuses.
The excuse is people violated the law, so they got a ticket; the excuse is stopping people in the interest of public safety; the excuse is police departments are unfairly coming under scrutiny for doing their jobs too well.
In Woodworth, where the speed limit drops to 35, there is no question of it being about public safety. There is literally nothing of consequence in the zone where the cops sit.
The mayors of these towns claim that it is the job of the police department and the city to uphold the law and the money they raise from doing so is just extra money. To outsiders the police officers of these small towns can seem like highwaymen while the officers themselves perhaps see themselves as local Robin Hoods.
I don’t know what the answer is to fix each city’s problem. I just know injustices are being done and small town leaders and our state government need to hold themselves to a higher degree of integrity. Some reform needs to happen at the state level so these towns don’t have to prey on people or go extinct.
What would happen if everyone traveling through these towns knew and followed the speed limit. Would more police officers start stopping people like Patricia Parker?