A year after the Cullman County Sheriff's Office established procedures for enforcing the nation's Safe Streets Act, Sheriff Tyler Roden described the program as "a work in progress."

"A year ago we set a goal of sending a clear message to folks to not drive on Cullman County roads without a valid driver's license, registration, and insurance because if you do, you run the risk of having your vehicle towed and impounded," Roden said. "We made good on that promise and we're beginning to see positive results throughout the county.

The only downside to the program, if you could call it that, is that the increased number of traffic citations and drug cases is adding further congestion to the district court dockets.

According to data compiled during its first year of enforcing the nation's Safe Streets Act, during which a series of driver's license checkpoints were set up at various locations around the county at various times during the year, sheriff's deputies:

• Have written just over 2,100 citations for such traffic violations as no driver's license, suspended or revoked driver's license, no tag, expired tag, no insurance, speeding, etc.

‰ Have made more than 500 arrests ranging from minor drug offenses to felony possession, outstanding warrants to misdemeanor and felony arrests.

• Impounded and towed more than 600 vehicles.

Roden estimated that the fines on the 2,100 tickets written during the past year range from $150 to $200 each.

"We've always conducted periodic driver's license checks in the county, but not to the extent that we have under the Safe Streets program," Roden said. "This has been a concentrated effort on our part and the people who drive illegally should be aware that we intend to do more of this throughout the coming year. We've gotten serious about finding those people who are driving illegally and we intend to get them off the road even if it means we have to tow their car to do it."

The Safe Streets Act permits law enforcement officers to impound vehicles in the following instances:

• The operator's driving privilege has been revoked for any reason, or suspended due to a DUI related offense.

• The operator has never obtained a valid driver's license.

• The vehicle is not properly registered.

Roden said the Sheriff's Office will continue to enforce a "zero tolerance" policy when it comes to automobile liability insurance.

"Violators will receive a traffic citation for this offense should they be stopped by deputies," Roden said. "We're serious about enforcing these laws and it appears to be a message that is taking hold."

A desire to improve public safety, particularly on our roadways, is behind the move to put more teeth into local enforcement of the laws which govern who can legally operator a vehicle, Roden said.

A more aggressive policy in regard to valid driver's licenses, registration and proof of liability insurance has translated into an even heavier burden on an already stressed court system.

The additional workload, however, is well worth it if it means less people will be driving in Cullman County illegally, according to District Court judges Kim Chaney and Terri Willingham Thomas.

"We both have the good fortune to know a lot of people in Cullman County. We enjoy seeing them. We just don't want to see them in court or at the funeral home," Chaney said. "So, wear your seal belt and keep a valid driver's license and registration in your car at all times and slow down."

The judges say they are already seeing the results of law enforcement's efforts in the courtroom.

During traffic court Wednesday, Chaney estimated that close to 400 defendants showed up, which meant standing room only and then some.

"We're averaging between 1,000 and 1,500 cases a month in traffic court. We've definitely seen a large increase in the number of cases involving driver's license violations and traffic offenses such as speeding," Chaney said. "Unfortunately we've had so many fatalities on I-65 that federal grant funds are being used to place more troopers on the roadways. Between the efforts of the county and state, traffic cases have exploded for us in the last six months."

Chaney estimated that he and Judge Thomas will be pushing 25,000 cases by the end of the calendar year.

"Most district judges in the state average 6,000 to 7,000 cases a year," Chaney said. "We've considered adding another docket, but the problem there is the fact that we don't have the personnel to input the case information into the system. The bottom line is there is no good way to handle 1,200 traffic tickets a month with the staff we have and there is no money available from the state to hire additional clerks."

From time to time, Roden said he will hear a complaint that the Sheriff's Office should spend its time doing something besides writing traffic citations and towing vehicles. The sheriff said he wants to assure local residents that officers do indeed have other responsibilities.

"There is nothing involved in the Safe Streets program that in anyway detracts from our other services or investigations," Roden said. "We owe it to this community to enforce the laws of Cullman County and the state of Alabama and that is what our offices have been directed to do."

Roden said he wished he could present data which showed how many accidents have been prevented and how many residential burglaries and other property crimes have been prevented as a result of the Safe Streets program, but there's no way to accurately judge how those areas have been impacted.

"It's hard to determine how much crime you can prevent or have prevented as a result of the Safe Street checkpoints we've conducted this past year, but I feel confident we have made a positive impact on crime and we have prevented traffic accidents," Roden said. "That's not to say that properly licensed drivers don't have accidents — they do. Statistics also show that drug offenders and other criminals often drive without a driver's license, so you never know when you pull a non-licenses driver out from under the wheel of a car what the total impact will be."

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