Macks Creek is gone. It lives on only in speed-trap lore.
In the early 1990s, this mid-Missouri town was legendary for ticketing drivers for any infraction along Highway 54 near the Lake of the Ozarks.
Things got so bad that it led to the establishment in 1995 of Missouri's speed trap law, known still as the Macks Creek Law.
But the Post-Dispatch has found that the law - frequently hailed as a success - is ineffective and riddled with loopholes.
The law says no city, town or village may receive more than 45 percent of its annual revenue from ticket fines. Any excess would be sent to county schools. The goal is to prevent police agencies from issuing tickets just to make money. But the Macks Creek Law appears to address only fines from moving violations. So if a driver is ticketed for speeding, but pleads guilty to a reduced, nonmoving charge ("improper equipment" is a popular one), the fine is likely to not be counted against the cap. The law also addresses tickets on only federal and state roads. County and city roads are exempt.
But no one tracks the type of roadway where tickets are written. The Missouri Highway Patrol does not keep tabs on other agencies' tickets. All moving violations are reported to the state revenue department, but the revenue department doesn't track the other data needed to enforce the Macks Creek Law.
And although the state requires municipal courts to report "total fines," courts do not distinguish among traffic fines or parking fines or city code fines. In 2007, Bella Villa reported $396,876 in court fines - 46.3 percent of its total revenue. That same year tiny Velda City in north St. Louis County reported $174,238 in fines, nearly 47 percent of revenue. But the fines could have come from several sources, not all covered by the Macks Creek Law.
The result is that no one knows whether the law is being broken.
That is why the revenue department, charged with distributing the excess traffic fines to schools, has never done so.
Even the attorney general's office, which on occasion investigates speed trap complaints if enough voters petition for an audit, struggles with the law.
"It's really difficult for us to determine compliance," attorney general spokeswoman Allison Bruns said.
AUDIT FINDS PROBLEMS
At its peak, Macks Creek, population 272, was making a living off traffic tickets, writing an estimated 2,900 a year. (The town would have ranked in the Top 15 in both Post-Dispatch speed trap measures.) Fines accounted for three-quarters of annual town revenue.
But then Macks Creek police pulled over several lawmakers. One state representative, Delbert Scott, was stopped for his tires' touching the white line along the shoulder.
Scott, now a state senator from Lowry City, drafted the bill that would become the speed trap law.
"I was looking at some way to still address safety issues, but for towns that just do it for the money, get at them," Scott recently explained.
Less than three years after the law was passed, Macks Creek filed for bankruptcy.
But the law had little to do with the town's failure. The downfall really was related to a 1997 state audit, which found major financial problems. Shortly after the audit, almost every town official resigned.
Macks Creek soon vanished. The town was disbanded.
No more tickets.
PUSHING FOR CHANGE
Now Sen. John Griesheimer of Washington wants to revise the Macks Creek Law to rein in Foristell, a St. Charles County town he considers a speed trap. His effort has attracted plenty of attention.
His provision, which was in a bill approved by the Missouri Legislature, targets the town without naming it and lowers the cap to 35 percent of revenue.
The senator, like Scott, was motivated by personal experience. Griesheimer's brother-in-law was a trucker who complained about Foristell police, the senator said. And his son got a ticket for rolling through a stop sign there. But Griesheimer's main complaint was that Foristell police worked Interstate 70.
"It is an absolute embarrassment that a town that small is patrolling the interstate," he said.
The Missouri Highway Patrol noted that it did not routinely patrol roadways covered by other agencies.
About the research
The Post-Dispatch analysis included five years of traffic stop data that law enforcement agencies are required to file with the Missouri attorney general's office. The data include detailed statistics on numbers of traffic stops, citations and warnings issued, and cover 96-98 percent of all law enforcement agencies in the state. In 2008, 927,130 citations were issued. To produce the citation rate per person, the number of citations was compared with the U.S. Census Bureau's 2007 American Community Survey population rates. Square mile measurements of municipalities recorded in the 2000 census were used to produce the ratio of traffic citations per square mile.