Along with the millions of dollars in traffic fines collected over the years by cops in Damascus, Ark., to benefit their town's alleged lucrative speed trap come thousands of stories from those who've paid the notorious little burg along U.S. 65.
Now that a prosecutor and court have shut down the community's impressive source of income, I thought I'd finally leave my opinion of the town with what strikes me as a classic account of what's reportedly been happening there for decades.
An 83-year-old motorist named Bob Clark of Harrison got to experience the expensive joys of Damascus twice in a year.
Knowing of the town's notorious reputation didn't bother him because his car had speed control. Still driving a car with Florida plates (uh-oh, big flapping red flag), the congenial man said he set the control precisely on the posted 45 miles an hour as he entered the town. "I wasn't taking any chances," said Bob, who was born in Boston. "It really wasn't even possible for me to be speeding with the control set, right?"
Uh, well, sorry Bob, that would be wrongheaded thinkin' down around Damascus way. "As we were leaving the south end of town heading for Little Rock, I glanced in the rear-view mirror and saw a patrol car beside a gas station, then blue lights coming up fast behind me," he said. "I thought, I'm not speeding. How can this be?"
The city officer approached the bewildered Bob and went through the usual rundown: License, registration, proof of insurance, which Bob produced, asking why he'd been stopped. "He told me he's clocked me on radar at 64 miles an hour. I told him my speed control had been set on 45. That didn't seem to matter to him."
Bob said he produced credentials showing his son was in New York law enforcement (also hoping he'd notice his veteran's designation and advanced age). But apparently none of that mattered a whit to an officer seemingly on a mission to help raise revenue for his city.
"He then informed me I could return in two weeks to attend a court date, or check with the court to pay the $200 fine," Bob continued. "He also would thoughtfully mark my ticket with the letters 'CP,' which he said meant if I paid the fine, the ticket wouldn't show up on my driving record."
"So I called the next day and a lady's voice said I'd reached the Damascus Police Department and Traffic Court, which struck me as odd in itself. A police department and traffic court?" After the dust cleared, Bob had shelled out $200 for a ticket he said he didn't deserve, plus $30 in so-called processing fees.
Fast-forward about a year. Again bound for Little Rock, Bob and his companion were headed through Damascus. Just as he'd done previously, Bob set the speed control on 45 before entering town and left it untouched to the southernmost end where the highway speed was about to increase to 60.
"We were doing exactly 45 again when, yep, you guessed it, blue lights again in the rear-view mirror."
This time, a different officer approached and went through his roadside routine. Bob again complied and asked what speed the officer had clocked him doing. Care to take a stab, valued readers? "He said I was doing 64 miles an hour, exactly the same as a year earlier. I said that had to be badly mistaken," said Bob.
"I told him I even knew where he'd been sitting by the same gas station because that's where the other cop had come out from. He told me yep, that's where he'd been, all right."
"I already knew it wouldn't do any good to argue that I'd been using my car's speed control," Bob said. "I'd been through that and by now the scam was clear. I asked if he was going to mark this ticket with the same 'CP' notation as his colleague had done the year before. He kinda smiled and said, 'Oh, so you already know about the CP, eh?'"
When Bob called the police station/traffic court this time, he asked the lady who answered if this officer had "CP'd" his second ticket like the first had been. She sounded surprised, saying, "Oh, you know about that?" Then Bob said she told him she couldn't be sure the judge would let a second citation go through with a CP notation (whatever that means ... Community Profits?).
"She said I could write the judge and ask him directly, which I did in a detailed letter," said Bob.
It must have been a convincing letter, since he never got a response. So, despite his best efforts to honor the Damascus speed limit, even by using speed control, Bob wound up shelling out yet another $230. That amounted to leaving $460 in Damascus over about 12 months. And he was but one of the average of at least 1,500 traffic stops in the hamlet each year.
Thankfully, the Arkansas State Police and two sheriff's departments are now responsible for enforcing traffic through the former "CP" speed trap (what the heck does CP mean, anyway?). Meanwhile, I've affectionately come to call it Desperately Seeking Dollars Damascus.
Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist. Email him at [email protected]
Editorial on 06/04/2017