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City council votes to rescind ‘careless driving’ charge charge

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By Greg Summers

 Gregory A. Summers

gsummers@thelancasternews.com

Since April 1993, Lancaster Police Department officers have had some leeway in issuing “careless driving” tickets instead of a charge with more serious ramifications, but that policy came to a screeching halt at the Lancaster City Council meeting Tuesday, May. 14.

Much to the chagrin of council members John Howard and Jackie Harris, council passed first reading of a measure to rescind the charge from its code of ordinances. The vote was 4-2, with Harris and Howard opposed.

The careless driving violation does not apply points against drivers and imposes a lesser penalty than other charges. In the city of Lancaster, the careless driving violation carries a $190 fine that drivers may opt to pay. 

However, based on recent opinion by Danny Crowe, chairman of the South Carolina Bar, the Municipal Association of S.C. says careless driving ordinances are against the law.

Council members were given a memo from city of Lancaster Municipal Court Administrator Cammie Heath, explaining the municipal association’s stance on the matter.

According to that memo, a letter written on behalf of the municipal association by Crowe states that “local moving violation ordinances that impose fines higher and lower than those allowed by state law would likely be in conflict with state law and void.”

The memo also cited a 2013 attorney general’s opinion that “local ordinances regulating traffic are void if they conflict with provisions in the state Uniform Traffic Act.”

City Administrator Helen Sowell said many South Carolina towns and cities are rescinding similar codes. Here, the municipal trial court judge had already stopped convicting drivers of the charge and recommended that it be repealed.

In 2013, city police officers wrote 161 tickets for careless driving.

“We’re losing a wonderful tool and an opportunity to help our citizens, but we don’t have a choice,” Sowell said.

City attorney Mitch Norrell said while the state’s uniform traffic code was meant to be sure every charge was on equal footing, Lancaster Police officers use the careless driving charge as a tool of goodwill to help drivers who make an honest mistake. But he said, it’s not the same across the state. 

“I believe this is targeted at those who have a speed-trap mentality,” Norrell said.

Howard said an opinion is only an opinion, and he is of the opinion this was a matter for the General Assembly to take up. The longtime councilman called it another infringement of “home rule.” Some insurance companies may turn a blind eye to traffic tickets, but others do not, Howard said.

“You have a hard-working citizen who just happens to make a mistake and hasn’t had a traffic ticket in 30 years,” he said. “We are not McBee. I don’t like it and I am going to vote against it.” 

Harris objected to rescinding the ordinance for another reason.

“I’m concerned that all of our citizens need to be informed of the change,” she said.

Executive session     

City Council also met in executive session for about 45 minutes to discuss a personnel issue and contractual matter. After returning to open session, council voted:

u To enter a contract to buy an 89-foot-by-86-foot piece of property on Greenbriar for $1,500. The small tract is adjacent to the Erwin Farm sewer lift station. Sowell said the city wanted an easement, but the owner preferred to sell it. It contains a portion of sewer collection lines in an area the city is renovating with a $350,000 grant from the Rural Infrastructure Authority. Sowell said total cost of the project is $622,000.

u Voted on a motion to waive the county residency requirement for the city of Lancaster public works director. The city’s personnel policy states that the city administrator, fire chief and police chief must live in the corporate city limits. All other department heads must live in Lancaster County, unless a waiver is granted by City Council. Jerry Crockett, public works director, requested a waiver to live outside Lancaster County. The vote was a 3-3 deadlock with Tamara Green Garris, Kenny Hood and Howard in favor and Harris, Gonzie Mackey and Shaw against. Since the vote ended in a tie, the motion failed. City Councilwoman Sara Eddins was not at the meeting.  

In other action, Lancaster City Council:

u Unanimously approved a resolution that authorizes the acceptance of a $11,984 Justice Assistance Grant. Lancaster Police Chief Harlean Howard said the grant will be used to buy body cameras for uniformed officers to wear on patrol.

“We found it to be a tool that is actually to our advantage when addressing citizen complaints. Once you view the video, it tells the whole story,” Howard said.

“You can’t turn down $11,000,” Shaw said.      

u Appointed Beverly Caskey to the Lancaster County Recreation Commission to fill the unexpired term of Sal Estrada. The city has two representatives on the commission and Estrada resigned due to a scheduling conflict that made it impossible to attend rec commission meetings. The vote was 5-1, with Shaw dissenting because Caskey is not a city resident. Caskey’s term expires in June 2016.

u Selected Tressie Barber-Thompson, Jeff Strickland and Samuel Keenan in a random drawing to serve as interns for the city of Lancaster this summer. The three, along with Katrina Grier and Shanice Harrison, will start work May 27 in the Summer College Intern program. Lisa Driggers, human resources director, said the municipality received 16 applications for the five slots and of those, three were city residents. Of the 13 remaining applicants, three did not meet the requirements and one withdrew due to another job offer.

 

Contact copy editor Greg Summers at (803) 283-1156