The Patagonia Regional Times recently received a letter from an irate driver who said he had driven through Patagonia and received a speeding ticket when he wasn't speeding. He claimed that Patagonia was a speed trap, giving out tickets to line the town’s coffers. His was not the first complaint about speeding tickets here, nor will it be the last. I made an appointment with Patagonia Marshal Joe Patterson to find out about Patagonia’s “speed trap.”
“What’s your definition of a speed trap?” he asked. As I searched for words, he told me his. “It’s when the police put up a big sign that tells drivers: ‘Go Right Ahead and Speed Through Town.’ Then when they do, they all get tickets.” He went on to explain how a driver earns a speeding ticket. It’s not subjective. Radar is an accurate way to read the speed of an oncoming car or a car to the rear. All Patagonia law enforcement vehicles are equipped with radar, and they are re-calibrated every day. The officers are trained to use radar and are tested on their visual perception. Before graduating from radar school, an officer has to be able to accurately evaluate the speed of a car or truck within two-miles-an-hour of its speed, which he or she then checks with radar.
Marshal Joe Patterson talks to a driver who was speeding
Patterson explained that there is usually some leeway in their decision as to whether to pull a car or truck over. Five to eight miles over the limit is a general rule of thumb. Whether to give a ticket, a written warning, or a verbal warning is also somewhat subjective.
Patterson invited me to go out on the road with him to experience what it’s like to patrol the highway. Before we left, he handed me the belt he straps on whenever he’s out on duty. I could barely hold onto it. Then he had me put on a Kevlar vest. This too was cumbersome and weighty. Clearly I was never going to make it as a cop.
Joe drives an unmarked white truck. The dashboard is filled with radio equipment and radar. The first car we stopped was heading south and going about 15 miles an hour too fast. The first thing Joe did was call a radio dispatcher in Nogales to say he was making a traffic stop. He turned on his flashing lights and pulled the car over. As he did this, he read off the numbers of the license, which happened to be from Pennsylvania. As he approached the car, I noticed that he touched the rear tail light. Then he bent down and spoke to the driver with politeness and authority. When he returned with the man’s driver’s license, he called in the name and number. If there had been any outstanding warrants or if the (continued on page 2)license wasn’t valid, he would have known in a matter of minutes.
These are all precautions. Knowing about the car and who is driving is important information to have before you get too far into a traffic stop. Touching the tail light, Joe explained, leaves the officer’s fingerprint and DNA on the car in case there is any need for later identification.
Joe guessed from the binoculars that the driver wore around his neck that he was a birder. He didn’t give him a ticket but wrote out a warning, explaining that he put it in writing so that there was a record of the stop. “He’s not paying attention,” Joe said. “He’s looking for birds. If he runs into someone down the road, I want there to be a record that he was pulled over and warned.” As we drove back to town, Joe called Nogales again and told them the stop was complete.
The Marshal cautions two Nogales girls who were hitchhiking home
A little later, driving past the high school, Joe spotted a north-bound 18-wheeler flashing its lights to warn another big truck of our unmarked vehicle. He made a safe U turn and pulled the offending driver (continued on page 3) over where there was plenty of room on the shoulder. Again he called in the license plate number. This time he returned to the truck with a driver’s license and the trucker’s daily log book. There he could see when the driver had last had a long break. Everything checked out. Joe walked back to the cab, issued a verbal warning, and the truck pulled back onto the highway, melted ice leaking from its back doors.
In April 2011, when the town hired Joe Patterson as marshal, many drivers regularly sped through Patagonia. In the 12 months before Joe took over, only 34 speeding citations had been issued by Patagonia law enforcement. Nowadays speed limits are enforced—some might say too stringently—but as we all know, if you don’t speed, you don’t get a ticket.
And as for the idea that the town is growing rich from all the citations, well, it does get a percentage of fine money from the state. Also, the marshal’s office receives a small stipend from each ticket, something in the neighborhood of a few dollars according to Joe Patterson. With this money they purchase enforcement or office equipment. This helps offset the town’s expenses.
People who have lived in Patagonia for a long time remember what it was like to have little evidence of any police presence in town. "I'm delighted," said Susan Belt. "For years there was inadequate police presence." Everyone I spoke to about law enforcement in Patagonia says they are glad that Joe and his deputies are out on the road and around town.