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Speeders catch a break, officers cite leniency in hard times

The average speed written on a ticket in Palm Beach County is lower than it was five years ago 11 percent slower countywide and more than 25 percent slower in some cities.

Are cops getting more strict? The answers may surprise some drivers.

“On the contrary, officers are human and we are not immune to the effects of these hard economic times, but we have a job to do,” said Sgt. Matthew Bessette, motor unit supervisor of West Palm Beach’s traffic division. “Officers may decide that a citation needs to be written for an infraction but still give the violator a break by lowering the speed.”

All of this has contributed to less ticket money flowing to cash-strapped cities. West Palm Beach’s ticket revenues were down 64 percent — $465,000 — over five years. Boca Raton lost $306,000 and Boynton Beach $251,000.

Countywide, the average 2010 ticket was for 15.6 mph over the posted limit, down from 17.6 in 2006, according to the county clerk’s ticket data analyzed by The Palm Beach Post.

That includes highway traffic on Interstate 95 and Florida’s Turnpike, but the averages are lower in most cities, too. In West Palm Beach, speeding tickets in 2010 averaged 11.6 mph above the limit, down from 15.6 five years ago.

Warnings, however, are up. They tripled in West Palm Beach from 3,077 in 2006 to more than 9,000 by 2009, Bessette said.

“Violators are judged on an individual basis,” Bessette said. “If the officer feels that the infraction is not the normal driving habits of the operator and they truly understand what they did was wrong and will be more aware of their driving in the future, then a warning could be issued.”

Jupiter’s average ticketed speed was down more than 25 percent — 13.1 mph over the limit in 2010, down from 18 mph over in 2006. Averages generally fell all over the county, with Wellington and Delray Beach, for example, both down about 2 mph.

West Palm Beach, the county’s most populous city, saw revenue from all traffic fines, including speeding, decline to about $265,000 from $730,000 in 2006, according to the county clerk’s records.

In Palm Beach County, nine of the 10 most populous cities collected less money from ticket revenue in 2010 than they did in 2006. Revenue dropped 57 percent in Lake Worth to $106,000, 39 percent in Delray Beach to $181,000 and 25 percent in Palm Beach Gardens to $130,000.

Several smaller cities, however, saw increases: Haverhill up 187 percent to $41,000, Ocean Ridge up 132 percent to $15,000, Palm Springs up 128 percent to $184,000 and Belle Glade up 88 percent to $28,000.

Here’s a clue police may in fact be exercising some discretion: By far the most common speeding citation over the past five years countywide was for 9 mph over the posted limit. It was more than twice as common as any other ticketed speed, an outcome not likely to happen by chance.

That’s significant for the driver’s wallet: The typical speeding ticket for up to 9 mph over the limit costs $131, compared with $206 for just 1 mph more.

As state legislators have increased traffic fines in recent years, that’s only added to the pressures on cops to show a little mercy. Additionally, local governments have some interest in seeing that drivers consider fines reasonable — they’re less likely to challenge them in court. That takes up additional police time and carries a risk that some fines will be dismissed or reduced anyway.

The bottom line is that officers have discretion to change a ticket’s bottom line, said Capt. Pat Kenny of the Palm Beach County sheriff’s traffic division. That does not mean the trend will continue forever.

“While the citation may list the violator as speeding 13 to 14 miles an hour over the speed limit, oftentimes the deputy caught the violator at 20 to 25 miles an hour over the speed limit,” Kenny said. “The deputy uses their discretion to lower the speeding in order to reduce the amount of the fine to the violator. Unfortunately, the true speed is not listed.”