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W.Va. officials have Benwood patrols in radar

Intelligencer/Wheeling News-Register photo by Fred Connors Benwood Police Chief Frank Longwell plans to continue running radar on W.Va. 2 through his community.
Intelligencer/Wheeling News-Register photo by Fred Connors
Benwood Police Chief Frank Longwell plans to continue running radar on W.Va. 2 through his community.

BENWOOD, W.Va. — West Virginia state code makes it illegal for Benwood police officers to issue speeding tickets on W.Va. 2 based on a speed radar reading alone – meaning that officers there are now relying on other methods to control the flow of traffic.

The small city, located on the Marshall/Ohio County line, is known for having a strong police presence on W.Va. 2. Earlier this month, the Governor’s Highway Safety Program pulled its speed enforcement grant funds from Benwood after someone filed a complaint over how Benwood officers ran radar on W.Va. 2.

The issue with Benwood comes down to its size.

The city is a Class IV municipality, and state code does not allow police officers from a Class IV municipality to use radar alone as primary evidence to win a conviction.

Police Chief Frank Longwell said the determination from the state could lead to traffic issues for his community’s residents.

“Route 2 will become a killing zone if you take law enforcement off the highway,” Longwell said.

In an email to Northern Regional Highway Safety Coordinator Neil Fowkes of the Wheeling Police Department, Governor’s Highway Safety Program Director Bob Tipton said, “I would like for you to make sure Benwood is aware of this and make them aware they are not to use GHSP funds to run radar on controlled access highways. Quite honestly, I didn’t know this was even in the code and they may not either.”

The 2-mile stretch of W.Va. 2 running north and south through Benwood is a controlled access highway, meaning the only entrance and exits from the highways are ramps. The community classification and the controlled access designation disqualify Benwood officers from using speed radar readings as primary evidence when issuing a moving violation.

Longwell said his department will continue to run radar on the road despite losing the state funding.

“If we have to, we will add a line item to our budget to fund extra speed controls,” he said.

The chief said since the law does not allow radar readings as primary evidence, his officers will have to be trained on other factors for backup evidence such as visually tracking a vehicle’s speed and watching a vehicle’s behavior in passing other motorists – for example, if a vehicle is weaving in and out of traffic, or didn’t use a turn signal.

That will make Benwood’s ability to defend a contested speeding ticket much more difficult.

“If someone contests a speeding ticket, we will have to give more information to prove our case,” he said.

Asked if the block on using radar readings as primary evidence will have any affect on additional charges that could arise out of the speeding stop, such as DUI or possession of a controlled substance, Longwell said police cannot advance additional charges unless they have probable cause to stop the vehicle in the first place.

“That is referred to as the ‘fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine,'” he said. “Our officers will have to be more diligent in spotting factors for the pullover.”

He said the issue is under legal review and he will lead efforts to have the law amended.

“It does not make sense that certified officers cannot run radar in small towns, but they can in larger ones,” he said.

Benwood city attorney Eric Gordon said he does not agree with the state’s decision to cut highway funding.

“The argument as it relates to a prohibition of use is based on W.Va. Code 17C-6-7,” he said in a letter to Benwood officials. “It is clear from the heading of this section that it is the intention of the statute to address the use of radar equipment as prima facie evidence. Prima facie evidence is evidence that, if unrebutted, is sufficient to sustain a conviction.”

Gordon said the law requires that a Class IV municipality have more than a simple radar reading to get a conviction.

Longwell said Benwood remains qualified for other state funding for initiatives involving seat belt, cellphone and DUI patrols and other highway safety programs.

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