FORISTELL — The laser speed gun rested in the police officer's lap, waiting to be called to action. The dashboard radar machine barked out speed readings in a computerized voice. Twenty feet below, unsuspecting drivers flew by on Interstate 70 in St. Charles County as they passed through Foristell, a small town widely considered the state's biggest speed trap.
"You're kind of like an eagle in a nest," Lt. Tom Etling said from his perch atop a freeway ramp, his police car hidden by an overpass.
Aided by the watchful eyes of seven full-time police officers, Foristell, pop. 350, issued 3,251 tickets last year. Court fines accounted for nearly half the town's $1.3 million in revenue.
Town officials may bristle, but Foristell has come to symbolize speed traps. Websites and message boards buzz with complaints about the town's ticketing ways. A national survey of drivers named it Missouri's worst speed trap. A state lawmaker is pushing a bill to clamp down specifically on the town. "I don't like speed traps," said bill author Sen. John Griesheimer of Washington, Mo. "It's wrong. It's absolutely wrong."
But, to some degree, Foristell has gotten a bad rap.
The town is not the biggest speed trap in Missouri, according to a Post-Dispatch analysis of statewide traffic data. Depending on the measure, Foristell is not even near the top. Towns sprinkled across the state could lay claim to being more prolific at ticket-writing than Foristell — places such as Bella Villa; Randolph, outside Kansas City; or several communities in west and north St. Louis County.
To obtain a clearer picture of where motorists were most likely to get ticketed, the Post-Dispatch examined five years of traffic stop data from about 700 Missouri police agencies. The information was culled from mandatory racial-profiling reports filed with the state attorney general, state court data and interviews.
The Post-Dispatch compiled a database and calculated speed-trap rankings, uncovering which agencies write the most tickets and which are most likely to give motorists just a warning.
The Missouri Highway Patrol by far writes the most tickets each year — 184,691 in 2008. But because it covers the state, it doesn't rank high.
As it turns out, several towns with speed-trap reputations — St. Charles and Independence, for example — posted unremarkable ticketing rates.
And some top-ticketing towns did not resemble a typical speed trap, including wealthier suburbs such as Frontenac and Richmond Heights (both wrote more tickets per square mile than Foristell over the last five years).
In Frontenac, one of the state's wealthiest cities, Police Chief Thomas Becker said his department was not asked to generate revenue, but his officers do patrol two miles of Highway 40. The stretch was recently rebuilt and has a new nickname among police: the Autobahn. Becker said residents were clamoring for more enforcement.
And that is one of the things about so-called speed traps: Where some people see over-the-top ticketing tactics — resulting in online tirades and legislative efforts — others see police simply enforcing the traffic laws.
The agencies cracking open the most ticket books shared certain traits: smaller populations with busy roads and police focused on traffic enforcement.
Police agencies contacted by the Post-Dispatch insisted they did not ticket for insignificant or questionable violations. They said they never cited drivers for 1 or 2 mph over the speed limit. Most said they offered a 9-mph cushion. They pointed out that they do not set speed limits on most of the roads they patrol, an assertion backed up by the state transportation department.
These police agencies also said there was no need for such tricks. All they had to do was look hard and often enough.
"We don't try to be sneaky," said Ed Locke, police chief in Bella Villa, where nearly all tickets are written along Bayless Avenue. "We sit out in the open."
DRIVERS IGNORE REPUTATIONS
The Post-Dispatch relied on two factors to compare ticketing efforts: tickets per resident and tickets per square mile. Both measures reflect the relative intensity of enforcement efforts.
Foristell, an exurban outpost of light industrial buildings and small subdivisions, certainly writes plenty of tickets considering the number of people living there. Police issued an average of nine tickets per resident from 2004 to 2008, a whopping 32 times higher than the state average. That was Missouri's second-highest rate. Over the same period, the town issued 600 tickets per square mile. But that ranked only 66th in the state.
The bulk of the town's tickets were written along a 4½-mile stretch of I-70 bisecting the town. Police Chief Douglas Johnson says his officers patrol the highway because residents complain about interstate traffic.
And even though Foristell's reputation is well-known, some drivers seemed undaunted. Last year, 156 drivers — an average of three a week — were ticketed for driving at least 21 mph over the speed limit. "They know about us and they still do it," Johnson said.
This was a common refrain from the state's top-ticketing agencies.
"I don't understand it, because everyone knows about the departments in this vicinity," said longtime Beverly Hills Police Chief Joe Collins, whose officers have no trouble finding speeders along Natural Bridge Road in north St. Louis County. Natural Bridge Road runs through several freely ticketing jurisdictions. Beverly Hills was No. 3 in the state for most tickets per square mile. Less than a mile south is Uplands Park, No. 2 in the state. Keep going a short bit and there is Pine Lawn, No. 10, a town where the number of tickets exploded 3,200 percent from 2004 to 2008. The police chief there attributed the soaring rate to stepping up traffic patrols to where they needed to be.
"Why would anyone speed in this area?" Beverly Hills' Collins said. "Because they don't have any regard for the posted speed limit and the safety of others."
But motorists such as Dave Farquhar of Mehlville said he avoided places with reputations as speed traps not because he wanted to break the law, but because he worried he would be stopped for a meaningless infraction.
"I'm a safe driver," Farquhar, 34, said. "But when I drive through (a speed trap town), I tend to be very, very cautious because I'm scared."
Across the state sits Randolph, the town that topped the state in tickets per resident — besting Foristell at No. 2 by nearly 60 percent. With just two full-time officers and eight part-time reserves, Randolph police wrote 1,110 citations last year in a place so small "if you blinked through the city, you'd just about miss it," Randolph Police Chief John Morris said.
Morris said geography explained why so many tickets came from a town with just 50 residents. A casino sits 100 yards outside the town limits. Another casino is less than a mile away. Blocks away is the Oceans of Fun water park. So there is plenty of traffic along narrow, curvy 20-mph roads with no shoulders.
"It's quite a unique little town," he said.
So is Randolph a speed trap?
"Depends on what your definition of a speed trap is," Morris said. "If someone is going 15 mph over, then it's not a speed trap."
RURAL TOWNS NOT IMMUNE
Many of the state's top-ticketing towns are situated in metropolitan regions. But rural places made a showing, too. The Top 20 list for tickets per resident includes places such as Linn Creek, Mo., near the Lake of the Ozarks, and Lone Jack, Mo., along the highway between Kansas City and Sedalia.
And then there is Leadington, 70 miles south of St. Louis.
"Yeah, we write quite a few tickets," said Leadington Police Chief Cledith Wakefield, whose department patrols the St. Francois County town at Highway 32 and U.S. 67. "But if we didn't, we'd have a much bigger problem than we do now."
Leadington, pop. 216, was No. 3 for tickets per resident over the last five years and No. 27 for tickets per square mile.
The town's five-member police force writes so many tickets because it patrols high-traffic roads, Wakefield said. "I have truck traffic that compares to downtown St. Louis."
But consider the situation six miles south of Leadington, in Farmington, Mo., which also sits along U.S. 67.
Farmington is much larger: 26 police officers and 15,870 residents.
Yet, last year Leadington and Farmington wrote about the same number of traffic tickets — 1,356 vs. 1,407.
Farmington Police Chief Rick Baker could not explain the apparent difference in traffic enforcement.
"They probably have more time to devote to it, I guess," he said.
LANDING IN COURT
Once a traffic ticket is written, the next stop is sometimes court.
In Foristell, traffic court features a fireplace and a chandelier.
The dark beige paint is fresh. The carpet is lush. The lighting is soft and recessed. The courtroom looks like the great room in a new subdivision — until last year it was just that, part of a homebuilder's showroom.
Now it is where tickets are dealt with.
On one recent night of traffic court, there was no feeling that justice was being rushed or that traffic tickets were being used as a money-making tool.
In fact, Judge Joseph Porzenski opened court by announcing he was inclined to reduce the fine for "no proof of insurance" from $105.50 to $2.50 in most cases.
Court was packed — not only with the 40 or so people sitting in the six rows of chairs, but also the court staff and five police reserve officers standing around the perimeter and running a metal detector.
Porzenski had a six-inch pile of blue case folders in front of him. He picked one up, read off a name and got to business. Plead guilty? Case dealt with right there. Maintain your innocence? Come back later for a trial.
Cases flew by. Driving 64 mph in a 35 zone. 86 in a 70. Broken tail lights. 68 in a 45. 62 in a 40. Failing to stop at a stop sign. No seat belt. Driving on a revoked license. Excessive tinting on windows.
The judge was sympathetic on that last one.
"Well, I tell you, I got the same ticket six months ago," Porzenski said with a wink.
These were citations from traffic stops, but not all were traffic-related: Several young men were charged with misdemeanor drug charges.
As for Foristell's reputation, Lt. Etling said he had heard the argument from friends that what he did was unfair. That's not how Etling views his job. And that difference gets at the heart of why traffic tickets and speed traps are such a hot topic.
"I'm not ruining lives," Etling said. "They're exceeding the posted speed limit."