Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Cities Must Use the Uniform Traffic Ticket

By Tigerron Wells, Municipal Association’s Government Affairs Liaison

At a recent Municipal Court Administration Association meeting, I had the chance to talk with its members about municipal traffic ordinances. I noted we know this for sure: All law enforcement officers in South Carolina must use Uniform Traffic Tickets when issuing traffic offense citations on South Carolina highways.

The potential penalties for intentionally violating this requirement include a misdemeanor conviction, a fine of up to $1500, and six months in jail for each nonuniform ticket issued. These are not consequences that we want to see any local or law enforcement officials suffer, so we thought it important to draw attention to the current state of the law given the attention legislators gave this issue during the recent legislative session. There is a section in the Municipal Court Handbook on page 20 regarding traffic violations and UTTs. 

On the related question of local governments passing traffic ordinances addressing speeding at all, the issue is in some ways more uncertain. You see, the Uniform Traffic Act expressly authorizes local authorities to regulate the speed of vehicles in public parks. But beyond that provision, there is no express authorization for local governments to regulate speed. 

The UTA clearly states that municipalities may adopt municipal traffic ordinances that do not conflict with the provisions of the UTA. So the question becomes: “What constitutes a conflict?"

Following the negative media attention that one local traffic ordinance drew in late 2013, the Municipal Association sought a legal opinion on the matter from municipal attorney Danny Crowe of the Crowe Lafave law firm.

Crow noted that a court's analysis of the question would likely consider the following:

1) whether the ordinance regulates traffic in a way that is already regulated by the UTA without express statutory authorization,

2) whether the local ordinance imposes greater or lesser penalties than the UTA, and

3) whether the local ordinance imposes a civil fine as opposed to criminal penalties of the UTA.

In situations when a court affirmatively answers some or all of these questions, the ordinance would most probably be deemed void as conflicting with state law.

Now, as acknowledged previously, there are a number of questions that remain up in the air, and South Carolina courts have not yet been presented with an opportunity to weigh in on this conflict question definitively. However, we are seeing growing consensus based on recent legal opinions against local traffic ordinances that duplicate state traffic laws but carry different penalties.

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