Sorrento Police Officer James Bell’s driving practices created quite a bit of controversy recently when it came to light that he operated his police vehicle at speeds in excess of 75 mph on 737 occasions in the 64 day period between July 1 and September 3, 2013. When asked to comment Police Chief Earl Theriot explained that Officer Bell issued over 300 traffic citations in that same period, suggesting the Bell was engaged in a number of high speed pursuits which would account for some of those instances of Bell’s speeding.
On Tuesday, October 15, Ascension Parish Court Judge Marilyn Lambert dismissed every traffic citation before the Court that was issued by Officer Bell due to his failure to adhere to evidentiary policies with regard to operation of police radar. In an earlier court appearance, Officer Bell was questioned by the Court with regard to whether or not he regularly calibrated his radar gun. He responded in the negative.
All Sorrento misdemeanor offenses and traffic citations are adjudicated by Parish Court and the latter are generally set for hearing on the second Tuesday of each month. September 10 was the Sorrento traffic court date last month. On that date Officer Bell responded to questioning by the court to say that he did not calibrate his radar gun to ensure for accuracy since it “does a self-check.”
“So you didn’t use the tuning fork to calibrate the radar gun,” the Court inquired further.
Again, Officer Bell responded that the equipment “does a self-check.”
The Court, as a rule, asks a police officer who appears as a state witness in traffic cases similar questions. Tuning forks are provided by manufacturers for the purpose of calibrating radar guns to ensure that readings are accurate. The forks are set to specific speeds. For example, if the tuning fork is set to 65 mph and the radar gun reads 60 mph, the testing officer knows the gun is inaccurate. The prosecution cannot then prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendant motorist was travelling at a particular rate of speed.
On October 15 Officer Bell was in traffic court again as the State’s chief witness against all the motorists to whom he issued citations. Assistant District Attorney Morgan Gravois appeared on behalf of the State to prosecute the suspected offenders.
Gravois informed the Court that DA Ricky Babin had authorized the dismissal of every traffic citation that Officer Bell issued due to his testimony on September 10. The Court agreed and those citations were dismissed.
DA Babin also authorized the dismissal of every traffic citation issued by Officer Bell prior to September 10, whether the matter was before the Court on October 15 or not. Any cited motorist who has not paid the traffic fine and has a pending court date will have the case dismissed so long as Officer Bell issued the citation prior to September 10. Such a motorist must still appear before the Court on the date indicated by the citation.
As for those cited motorists who have already paid the fine, thereby avoiding the necessity of a court appearance, they have a remedy too. If such an individual appears before the court on the date indicated on the citation, he/she may enter a plea of not guilty and be reimbursed the amount of the fine if it is verified that payment was made. In cases where payment cannot be verified the matter will be held over until the trial date and all efforts will be made to verify payment.
In order to expedite these matters it has been suggested that affected motorists contact the District Attorney’s office and provide all relevant information.
Sorrento Police Chief Earl Theriot was asked for comment. He refused except to say that it is the Court’s prerogative “to dismiss any case it wants to dismiss.”
Asked to comment on Sorrento PD’s policy with regard to maintenance and calibration of its radar guns Theriot politely declined. Nor would he comment on the status of Officer James Bell within Sorrento PD.