How a Florida city used a 1,000 percent jump in speeding tickets to finance its police department

By: Brian D. Crecente

It was a sweet deal: Don’t worry about crashes or road work, just write traffic tickets and rake in the money.

In 1997 and 1998, the gated city quietly took control of three major roads framing its boundaries and began churning out tickets to nearly everyone but its own residents. In one year’s time, 99.3 percent of all tickets written by city police went to out-of-town drivers, according to a Palm Beach Post computer analysis.

In the past five years, fine collections jumped from about $5,400 to more than $63,000 – a 1,067 percent increase.

Police Chief Robert Mangold says city residents don’t get tickets because they don’t violate the law. His department makes it a point to teach them about the department’s traffic enforcement.

But earlier this year even Mangold reached his limit. Atlantis police were spending so much time on Military Trail, Congress Avenue and Lantana Road writing tickets that the chief ordered his officers to stay inside the walls for a full week in June to remind them that patrolling the city was their duty as well.

The Atlantis Police Department is just one of several agencies in small, wealthy, nearly crime-free South Florida towns that write the majority of their tickets to nonresidents, The Post analysis found.

In Gulf Stream, an oceanfront town of about 700 east of Boynton Beach, the city’s five patrol officers wrote 123 tickets from July 1, 1998, to June 30, 1999. Only one of those tickets went to a resident.

The eight patrol officers of the Martin County beach town of Jupiter Island wrote 194 tickets, again only one of which went to a resident.

Police chiefs in Jupiter Island and Gulf Stream say their residents don’t get tickets because they know their towns’ streets: low speed limits, winding two-lane roads and plenty of officers looking for speeders.

The Post’s analysis of Atlantis tickets from July 1998 to June 1999 also found:

* All but 60 of the 1,506 tickets were for traffic stops on Congress Avenue, Lantana Road or Military Trail, the three main roads framing the city’s walls. The city expanded its borders to include the roads to “provide frequent traffic enforcement,” according to annexation agreements with the county and state.

* Of the 60 tickets written for violations inside the city walls, only seven went to Atlantis drivers. Of the 1,446 tickets written outside the walls, only four went to city residents. That means that only 11 tickets out of 1,506 went to people from Atlantis.

* Atlantis residents were more likely to receive warnings than tickets when pulled over. About 78 percent of the Atlantis residents who where pulled over received warnings, while only 16 percent of the out-of-towners pulled over received warnings.

City residents sport green identification stickers about the size of candy bar on the front and rear of their vehicles, making it easy for police to spot Atlantis drivers.

The mayor says the stickers are security tools so police can be alert for suspicious cars, not for selective traffic enforcement. But experts in criminal justice question the city’s motives.

“If you choose one person over another, fine, but if you always look for the out-of-state or the out-of-the-area cars, that’s when it’s called a speed trap, and it’s highly unethical,” said Geoffrey Alpert, a professor of criminal justice at the University of South Carolina. “The kind of department that would become involved in this kind of activity is not a department managed properly for the best interest of the larger community.”

Revenue no accident

Atlantis is a tiny city of neat lawns, meandering roadways and speed limits of 25 mph.

It’s a city with no sidewalks and no businesses but plenty of places to park a golf cart. Nearly half of the city is open space and a golf course.

A city with 1,707 residents, 13 police officers and little crime. Last year, only 100 crimes were reported in Atlantis, including 96 thefts, down from 135 the previous year.

Yet from outside its 8-foot walls topped with barbed wire and hedges, Atlantis looks more like a military base or prison than an enclave where the average home sold for $200,000 in 1999.

Only three streets lead into its 1 1/2 square miles, each guarded by full-time private security officers – not police – who have no power to stop drivers from entering but have control over a gate that lets them in.

Before venturing outside the walls to go after traffic offenders, Atlantis had to get permission.

In 1997, Atlantis went to Palm Beach County officials to annex Military Trail and Lantana Road – essentially expanding its borders by the width of the roadways. The city also asked that the county continue to maintain the roads and that Palm Beach County sheriff’s deputies or Florida Highway Patrol troopers work the crashes that occur there.

County Commissioner Warren Newell recalls that Atlantis claimed it wasn’t getting sufficient enforcement from state troopers and sheriff’s deputies.

“They said they wanted to protect their residents,” he said. “They requested the annexation for safety reasons. The quantity of speeders going up and down those roadways and the speeds they are going was a big issue.”

Mangold has said much the same thing: “The thought was to address some of the speeding problems out there, hopefully making it safer for our residents coming and going, and give the police officers a little more for them to sink their teeth into.”

Said state Sen. Ron Klein, D-Boca Raton: “That sounds like the county gets saddled with the cost of accident cleanup and the city gets the benefits of revenues of traffic tickets. If the city wants the roadway, then they should be responsible for everything that happens on it. It’s something the city and the county should take a look at.”

Atlantis took control of Congress Avenue with even less scrutiny.

In 1998, Atlantis sent a letter to the state’s Department of Transportation asking whether the agency had any objections to the city taking ownership of Congress Avenue, a state road. In a letter dated Feb. 10, 1998, Karen Kameron, senior attorney for the DOT, wrote that the department does not get involved in annexation proceedings and that it would likely be up to the county.

But county officials didn’t learn about it until a county planner spotted a newspaper advertisement about the proposed annexation. Because they did not receive notice, county officials said they were unable to review the proposal.

On March 18, 1998, despite not having received state or county authorization, Atlantis Council members voted to annex Congress Avenue, saying that the “Florida Department of Transportation has no objections to the annexation.”

“We did not authorize it,” Kameron said. “We did not participate in it.”

The ordinance also states that the DOT will maintain the roads and that deputies and troopers will work the crashes, which they do.

Of the 733 crashes that occurred on the three roadways from 1996 to March 2000, including five fatal crashes, Atlantis police worked three crashes, but none of the fatal ones.

‘It’s like the Daytona 500’

The Atlantis Police Department’s policy states that officers are to spend only 30 minutes per eight-hour shift parked outside the city walls writing tickets. But according to The Post’s analysis, the period of time between such tickets written by a single officer is sometime longer than a half-hour.

For instance, on Jan. 8, 1999:

Officer Eugene Sauer wrote speeding tickets at 11:13 p.m., 11:40 p.m. and 4:36 a.m.

Sgt. Christopher Karpinski wrote tickets at 8:21 p.m., 9:06 p.m. and 11:32 p.m.

Sgt. Sanford Lopater wrote tickets at 9:44 p.m., 9:57 p.m. and 10:48 p.m.

Officer Robert Bennett wrote speeding tickets at 11:56 a.m. and 2:14 p.m.

Mangold acknowledged that the department’s officers were getting overzealous and said he placed a weeklong moratorium in June on writing any citations or patrolling outside of the city’s walls from 3 p.m. to 7 a.m.

“I got tired of officers using pretext to go out there,” said Mangold, chief since 1992. “I was somewhat frustrated that officers seemed to want to spend more time writing tickets then doing their patrols in the city.”

Mangold said his department’s traffic enforcement is a response to chronic speeding. The limit is 45 mph on Military, Congress and Lantana, and Mangold said some cars double it. According to The Post’s analysis, the average speed listed on tickets was about 63 mph; two drivers were clocked at 90.

“It’s like the Daytona 500 out there,” Mangold said. “We wanted to slow down the people out there to make it safer for our people coming and going.”

According to county records, the number of crashes along the three roadways outside Atlantis has increased about 15 percent from 1996 to 1999, despite what all agencies agree is increased traffic enforcement in the area.

During that same period, the amount of traffic in the area increased about 9 percent.

The fines collected by the city because of tickets also have increased. From October 1995 to September 1996, police brought in $5,403 in fines from traffic citations. From October 1999 to September 2000, the city pulled in $63,300.

Mangold said fine money goes into the city’s general fund and called the $63,300 a “drop in the bucket” compared with the city’s nearly $2.5 million annual budget.

“If I was interested in revenue I could put an officer out there and bring in 10 times the number of tickets,” he said. “That’s not the purpose of doing it.”

According to the city’s budget, the police department traded in its Chevrolet Caprices, which cost from $14,000 to $20,000, and bought two $28,050 Chevy Tahoes in 1997, the year Military Trail and Lantana Road were annexed. The department bought a third Tahoe in 1999 for $29,156 and two more in 2000 for $29,186 each.

Mangold said the department bought Tahoes because they were the only vehicle on the market that could carry the emergency supplies the officers needed. He said all of his officers are trained emergency medical technicians and have to carry large medical kits and defibrillators in their trucks as well as standard police equipment like road flares and shotguns.

Guidelines not always followed

Outside the walls of Atlantis, police wrote about five tickets for every warning issued. But inside those walls, police issued more warnings than tickets.

On their winding two-lane streets, Atlantis police wrote only 60 tickets, seven of which went to residents, while handing out 89 warnings, 39 of which went to residents.

“I see them out there more often than I see them in the city,” said Atlantis resident Patrick O’Neil. “In the city, they’re a little more lenient.”

O’Neil was stopped by officer Kathleen Mottl in December 1998 for skidding through a stop sign at Gleneagles Road and Orange Tree Drive on Dec. 23. He had just bought a truck and hadn’t put the resident stickers on it yet, he said. He fought the ticket and won.

Of the 10 Atlantis drivers ticketed by city police from July 1, 1998, to June 30, 1999 (one driver received two tickets), six were reached for comment. O’Neil and two others said they didn’t have the city’s stickers on their vehicles when they were stopped. The other three said they had the stickers. Two of them appealed to Mangold, who refused to void the tickets, the drivers said.

Mangold said the department strictly adheres to its enforcement policy, approved by the city council on May 8, 1996:

* Motorists traveling less than 5 mph over the speed limit will not be pulled over.

* Motorists traveling 5 to 9 mph over the speed limit will receive a warning on their first offense and a ticket on any other offenses that occur within the next six months.

* Motorists traveling 10 mph or more over the speed limit will receive a ticket.

But those rules were not always followed, records show.

On 14 occasions, officers ticketed drivers who were traveling 9 mph over the speed limit and had no prior warning.

Mangold said 11 of the 14 tickets were written by two officers who were no longer with the department.

“I don’t know whether they purposely misapplied the policy or inadvertently did so,” he said. “In general, I think these are anomalies. When you look at the numbers, that’s not even 1 percent. I think that speaks for itself as far as what happened here.”

The chief said so few Atlantis residents were ticketed because the city spends a lot of time reminding them of the department’s enforcement policies.

“We have tried to educate the people who live here,” Mangold said. “I put in information in the monthly newsletter.”

In the January 2000 newsletter, Mayor William Howell reminded city citizens to make sure their cars had resident stickers:

“A part of our city security systems depends on the instant recognition, at a distance, of our residents’ automobiles,” he wrote. “Without these current decals our system is compromised, and a lot of time is being used in identification of automobiles without decals that are resident-owned.”

Question of ethics

The Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office and American Automobile Association agree that despite the possible appearance of bias, Atlantis has broken no laws. Instead, the issue is one of ethics.

Mike Edmondson, spokesman for the state attorney’s office, said that even if the police department had a written policy stating not to ticket residents, it wouldn’t be illegal.

“The issuing of traffic citations falls within the discretion of the officer and the department,” he said. “Unless a protected class is targeted, such as race or gender, then discretion in ticketing would not rise to the level of a crime or a potentially litigious issue.

“As unseemly as it may be, the unfortunate reality is that when it comes to traffic citations, there is selective enforcement at the outset.”

Randy Bly, director of community relations for AAA’s southern region, said Atlantis’ ticketing practices appear to be inappropriate.

“One of our missions is for fair and equitable traffic enforcement, and that’s not what’s happening in this town,” Bly said. “When you become selective in your traffic enforcement, I think it brings into question your primary motive.”

Alpert, the criminal justice professor, said that just because it’s not illegal doesn’t mean it’s right.

Alpert said many departments have codes of conduct that tell officers to be fair. For instance, the code of conduct of the International Association of Chiefs of Police states that a police officer shall perform all duties impartially.

Alpert, who teaches ethics to police officers and administrators, said that although officers have the discretion whether to write a ticket to a particular person, they still need to be fair about that choice.

“It’s not fair, because it is protecting your own,” he said.

Newell, the county commissioner, said police should not discriminate when it comes to pulling over speeders.

“If the residents are being treated differently. that’s a problem,” Newell said. “That’s what I hope isn’t happening.”

Staff database editor Christine Stapleton and staff writer Matt Mossman contributed to this story.

 

A lucrative practice

In the past five years, fine collections jumped from about $5,400 to more than $63,000 – a 1,067 percent increase.

* Eleven tickets out of the 1,506 written between July 1998 and June 1999 went to residents of Atlantis.

* About 78 percent of the Atlantis residents who where pulled over received warnings, while 16 percent of the out-of-towners pulled over received warnings.

Traffic ticket windfall

Before 1997, police in the tiny city of Atlantis had no authority to pull over speeders on roads surrounding its borders. But then the city annexed the roadways, and by the summer of 1998, it was open season for ticket writing – on out-of-towners. A Palm Beach Post analysis of tickets written from July 1998 to June 1999 found that 99.3 percent of all tickets went to nonresidents. Moreover, collections from traffic ticket fines have jumped by 1,067 percent since 1995. Officials contend that Atlantis drivers know to abide by the law and that the town is not making much money off tickets.

Atlantis

* Population: 1,707

* Police force: chief, four sergeants, six full-time patrol officers and two part-time officers.

* Size of city: 1.5 square miles.

* Tickets written from July 1998 to June 1999 inside city walls: 60

* Tickets written from July 1998 to June 1999 outside the city’s walls: 1,446

* Number of tickets issued to residents: 11

Most frequent types of tickets issued 

Speeding 943

Suspended license 63

Cutting through a plaza 62

No driver license 55

No seat belt 54

No registration 39

Running a red light 33

No insurance 26

Running a stop sign 20

Brake light out 19

Expired tag 19

No headlights 17

Driving under the influence 15

Fines collected from traffic citations

Oct. 1-Sept. 30

1994-95 $1,519

1995-96 $5,403

1996-97* $10,212

1997-98** $45,469

1998-99 $58,463

1999-00 $63,300

Sources: Atlantis traffic tickets; Atlantis fine collection records; Palm Beach Post computer database analysis.

Selective traffic enforcement?

Atlantis is one of several wealthy, nearly crime-free towns in South Florida that ticket mostly non-residents. Here are two others.

Jupiter Island

* Population: 561

* Police force: chief, administrative sergeant, four patrol sergeants, one marine unit, one special operations detective, eight patrol officers.

* Size of city: 3 1/2 miles long, 1/3 mile wide.

* Tickets written from July 1998 to June 1999: 194

* City residents ticketed: 1

Most frequent tickets issued

Speeding 52

No seat belt 30

Driving in an unsafe condition 27

No driver license 22

Expired tag 22

No registration 13

Running a stop sign 7

Suspended license 4

Gulf Stream

* Population: 714

* Police force: chief, lieutenant, two sergeants, five full-time officers.

* Size of city: 2 miles long, half- mile wide.

* Tickets written from July 1998 to June 1999: 123

* City residents ticketed: 1

Most frequent tickets issued

Speeding 43

Passing in a no passing zone 20

Expired tag 13

No driver license 9

Suspended license 8

No insurance 6

No headlight 3

No brake light 1

Tailgating 1

This story originally ran in The Palm Beach Post on Dec. 24, 2000.

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