Where’s Waldo? In Florida…specifically about 25 miles northeast of Gainesville on U.S. Highway 301, the primary route from I-75 in Gainesville to Jacksonville about 100 miles away.
The tiny town of Waldo, Florida has long been known as a notorious speed trap among locals in North Central Florida — a reality to which your author can personally attest. But it’s also drawn national attention in recent years, having narrowly beaten out the nearby town of Lawtey as AAA’s “Biggest Speed Trap in the Country.”
The situation has become so dire, and the victimization so severe, that AAA itself placed a large billboard (pictured above) outside of town to warn passers-by of its profiteering. And Waldo seems tailor-made for tricking motorists into unintentionally speeding.
On a segment of highway barely two miles long, the speed limit changes six times: 65 to 55, 55 to 45, then back to 55, back down to 45, up to 55 again and finally to 35 mph. It is at this last change where officers write the biggest tickets.
There have been whispers (OK, more like screaming accusations) for years that the Waldo PD has instituted a quota system for ticketing — which is illegal under Florida law. But something was clearly afoot in Highway 301.
The town of Waldo, with just a hair over 1,000 residents (seven of whom are police officers) issued a staggering 11,603 traffic citations in 2013 alone. That’s 11.6 speeding tickets per resident, a per-capita ticket rate 55 times higher than Gainesville, 25 miles away.
Ferguson’s rate of per-capita police brutality investigations should be so impressive. Matter of fact, Ferguson could also take a few lessons from Waldo in terms of using its police force to fund the city.
And they are funding the city — According to Waldo’s 2013 operations report, fully HALF of its budget for the year came from traffic citations and court costs. Compare that to Ferguson, where only about 20 percent of the city’s budget comes from fines and court costs. You Missouri boys better learn to catch up — Florida’s out-exploiting you.
So how did Waldo make such a thriving industry out of extorting passing motorists? For that, we go to police chief Mike Szabo and Cpl Kevin Smith. Szabo’s indiscretions came to light during a Waldo City Council meeting on August 26th, when a group of police officers went on record that Szabo had forced them to write at least 12 tickets per 12-hour shift, or face punishment. They also accused Cpl. Smith of, among other things, mishandling evidence and helping to enforce Szabo’s quota scheme.
Following the Council appearance, the officers went directly to the Florida Inspector General’s office to file for protection under the Whistleblower Protection Act. The officers told the IG’s office that they were forced to publicly out their superior officers because they’d already gone to City Manager Kim Worley some time before. And Worley’s response? To tell their boss Szabo that they’d ratted on him and his scheme. The officers faced retaliation from Szabo and Smith for “about the next six months.”
Currently, the State Attorney Office in Alachua County is waiting for FDLE to finish its investigation of the ticket quotas before deciding whether or not to press charges on Szabo and Smith, and what action to take (if any) regarding Worley’s failure to report Szabo’s activities after informed. Szabo and Smith have both been suspended as of right now, and a commander from the Alachua County Sheriff’s office is now running the Waldo PD.
Worley’s comment to a reporter: “No Comment” and slammed door.
Of course, regular motorists along 301 (especially truckers) are bound to rejoice. But so are the locals, because the PD is more than happy to prey on the local population when it can’t meet its quota by victimizing out-of-towners. Mike Barrs, long-time Waldo resident, says he’s gotten “At least 20 tickets in Waldo.”
As for your former-truck-driving author and Central Florida local — the count between Waldo and Lawtey currently stands at four tickets total, with over $800 in fines paid out between them.
But if this investigation can help to put to an end to even the most banal example of Florida’s legal system victimizing and extorting the residents of this state…
…then it was worth every dime.
Lawtey, you’re next.
(Yes YOU, Officer “I stopped you because your car matches the description of a known drug dealer’s, but here’s a $140 ticket because I didn’t see you use your turn signal when I pulled you over, and another $125 because your left tire’s touching the white line.”)
H/T: Seattle PI