For the past three months, some drivers along Interstate 95 have received an unexpected souvenir of their travels through Ridgeland -- a ticket mailed to their homes triggered by a town camera system designed to snare speeders. A state law passed in July forbids citations based "solely on photographic" evidence, making Ridgeland's camera enforcement system illegal, some lawmakers have said.
Now come more questions about the tickets' legality.
A copy of a citation obtained by The Beaufort Gazette and The Island Packet indicates some drivers are being cited for violating a town ordinance rather than state speeding law.
Two opinions from the S.C. Attorney General's Office indicate that ordinance is inconsistent with state law and, as a result, invalid.
"I've never heard of a municipality writing speeding tickets under that kind of ordinance," said Patrick McLaughlin, a Florence attorney who frequently tries traffic cases. "We think of that more as a throwaway charge that you hope to plead to."
According to a copy of the citation the newspapers obtained, drivers are being cited for careless operation of a vehicle rather than speeding.
Ridgeland's ordinance defines careless operation as operating a vehicle "negligently, heedlessly and without due care and caution."
While McLaughlin said such charges are unusual, they are not unprecedented.
Bluffton, Beaufort and Port Royal have careless-operation ordinances, although law-enforcement officials in those areas say that charge is not usually made if a driver also violated the state's speeding law. Beaufort County and the Town of Hilton Head Island have no such ordinances.
A ticket issued for an ordinance violation will not "ordinarily" result in points against a driver's license, according to a letter from Ridgeland Police Chief Richard Woods that accompanies the town tickets.
And that may be the problem.
Although state law allows local ordinances to regulate the use of public roads, it prohibits them from altering state penalties for similar offenses, according to a 1988 Attorney General's Office opinion discussing the careless operation ordinance in Florence.
That ordinance defined careless operation as operating "any vehicle without care or caution and full regard for safety of persons or property."
According to that opinion, which is not legally binding, the Florence ordinance conflicts with state law because -- like Ridgeland's ordinance -- it did not cost the driver points on his or her license as a state violation would.
However, the opinion said the ordinance did not appear to be so out of line with state law that it "preclude(s) the enforcement of such an ordinance."
A second Attorney General's Office opinion issued in July 2001 regarding similar local laws near Edgefield County reiterated that stance but said that a "judicial review is necessary to determine the issue ... with finality."
It is unknown how many tickets Ridgeland has issued since the camera system began operating in August or how many of them cited the local ordinance rather than state law. Several attempts last week to reach Chief Woods and Ridgeland Mayor Gary Hodges for comment were unsuccessful.
Beaufort attorney Jim Brown is challenging one of the tickets on behalf of an out-of-state driver cited for speeding last month.
Brown would not discuss particulars of his client's case but said the ordinance is only one questionable aspect of the town's enforcement program.
"They're betting that someone is just going to pay the $133 fine instead of coughing up $5,000 to $10,000 to take it on up" in court, Brown said. "They're just casting a net across I-95."