ARCADE, Ga. — Ten police officers used to roam the busy stretch of highway that slices through this tiny Georgia town near Athens, writing traffic tickets that helped pay for a spacious city complex but also infuriated local businesses and repulsed drivers.
Arcade's residents hoped they had put the reputation behind them after the Georgia State Patrol cleared the city of speed trap allegations and a new police chief downsized the department. But the issue re-emerged, this time in the form of a federal lawsuit filed by a frustrated driver.
"Someone had to finally take a stand for all those who have been targeted by the city of Arcade police," said Joe Moses, a retired dentist who filed the complaint in December. It contends officers used "overzealous and improper tactics in creating a speed trap" along U.S. Highway 129.
Residents have grown used to the allegations. The National Speed Trap Exchange warns drivers to take caution when rolling through the city of 1,900 about 13 miles northwest of Athens. And the Georgia State Patrol investigated the city three times between 1997 and 2005, each time concluding the police department was not running a speed trap.
"It's made people scared to death to go through Arcade," said Darlene Craven, the owner of Darlene's Family Hair Care and Tanning Salon, which sits along Arcade's main road.
Police Chief Randy Williams, who took the department's reins in 2008, said he's cut the department down to a lean staff of four officers that's dedicated to community policing and crime prevention.
"Traffic is part of policing, and I like officers to be seen," he said. "But we just tell them to enforce the law."
City attorney Jody Campbell declined to comment on the pending lawsuit, and the city has yet to respond to the complaint in court. The city's mayor did not return several messages seeking comment.
While the state investigation could have stripped the right of local police officers to use radar detectors, the federal lawsuit could carry other penalties. It seeks punitive damages, a jury trial and Moses' attorneys hope to broaden the complaint to include others who feel they were unjustly pulled over in Arcade.
"We intend to explore this apparent speed trap, and find others who have been unjustly caught in its net," said Craig Goodmark, an attorney who joined civil rights attorney Gerry Weber in representing Moses.
Moses was driving home from visiting his daughter in Athens on a foggy December 2008 night when he noticed a police car trailing him, he said in the complaint.
He pulled to the side of the road after driving a few hundred yards to let the squad car drive by him, only to watch the officer pull behind him, he said. First, he said he was cited for driving too slowly. And when he objected, Moses said the officer tagged him with another citation: Failing to have working tag lights.
Moses claims both citations were erroneous. And he said that he asked two police officers in a nearby town to check his tag lights 30 minutes later, and both confirmed in writing that his lights complied with state requirements.
Even with a downsized police force, Arcade still earns a hefty chunk of its revenue from traffic fines.
Some $192,000 of the city's $675,000 total revenues in 2009 came from fines and forfeitures, according to a Georgia Department of Audits review. In 2008, the city reaped more than $380,000 in revenues from fines and forfeitures, about 40 percent of the total revenue collected that year, according to the audit.
Connie Whitey, who has lived in town since 1991, said she hopes the lawsuit doesn't stoke new fears about her town. She said during the police force's heyday, revenue at her liquor store Bulldog Package dropped 40 percent as drivers steered clear of Arcade.
"What did we need 10 police officers for? They ruined the name of Arcade, and it's taken us years to rebuild," she said. "Arcade definitely was a speed trap. It still can be, but it's not as bad as before."