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Fairfax missing out on speeding ticket funds because of legal error

By Derek Kravitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 16, 2010; B01

Fairfax County has missed out on potentially tens of thousands of dollars in speeding ticket revenue because of a noticeable but little-understood legal error in the county code that has allowed the money to go to state coffers for years, according to county and police officials.

The inconsistency between the county code and state law, uncovered by the auditor to the Board of Supervisors nearly three years ago and created when Fairfax officials failed to update the local statute, has led police to write tickets that are against state, but not county, regulations because Fairfax officials have not updated local statutes.

The discrepancy, which county officials began addressing this week, can be found in the speed-limit laws of the state and Fairfax, the commonwealth's most populous locality at nearly 1.1 million residents. The most cited example is the 50 mph limit on the Fairfax County Parkway, which stretches 35 miles from north to south through the county. The county's speeding statutes fail to include the 50 mph limit; the Fairfax code lists only the old 55 mph limit on such roads.

County police officers have been writing tickets under both laws. This means that if a driver is caught speeding on the parkway, the money from the ticket could be sent to either the county or the state, depending on which law the officer cited.

"Over the years, we've incorporated a lot of the language from the state, and the county code is somewhat antiquated," said Capt. Mike Dittmer, commander of the Fairfax police chief's Office of Research and Support. "This will allow officers to write the ticket to the county. So you won't see more tickets, but you might see more money coming our way."

The Fairfax County Parkway, which was built in the late 1980s, is one of the most heavily used roads in Northern Virginia, and police have launched several campaigns to curb speeding on the road, said Officer Joe Moore of the motorcycle unit. He said that officers had been using the state and county codes for traffic tickets on the parkway and that the county's effort to clarify its law is "a long time coming."

Fairfax police said they don't know specifically how many tickets or how much revenue from the speeding offenses has gone to the state instead of the county because of the discrepancy between county and state codes. Fairfax's special auditor to the supervisors launched a review of the state-county confusion in October 2007, finding that officers were often writing tickets using state legal codes instead of Fairfax's. The fear, officers said, was that a judge might throw out a case when an outdated law is cited.

Members of the police motorcycle unit notified officials of the error a year ago, said Supervisor Jeff C. McKay (D-Lee), and this week county staffers began the long process of updating the local law. A public hearing on the changes is set for Sept. 14.

"At a time when every dollar counts, we shouldn't be sending additional money to the state for work our officers are performing," McKay said.

Fairfax Police Chief David M. Rohrer issued a memo to his command staff in December 2007 making clear that county codes should be used whenever possible. The change resulted in at least $1.5 million in additional annual revenue for Fairfax police, according to the county auditor's report. Dittmer said the chief reiterated this year that officers need to write tickets based on the county code.

As state speed limits have changed, so has the technical language for many traffic offenses. Localities often make frequent changes to their laws to be in accordance with state regulations. But the discovery of the legal problem also comes at a time of increased scrutiny for Fairfax police's record-keeping and case management.

A new police computer system launched in January, I/LEADS, was designed to streamline the report-writing process for the many officers who write traffic tickets and arrest information. But some officers have complained that the new system is too complicated and that it requires too much additional time to file reports. Police recorded a 28 percent drop in traffic tickets through the first 4 1/2 months of 2010 compared with same period last year, in part because of the new system. The drop has resulted in $1 million less revenue.

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