Former trooper says truckers are treated unfairly

By Jason Cisper
Staff Writer

After serving six years in the Marines as a military policeman, and nearly three years with the Hinkley, OH, police department, Houston went to work for the Ohio highway patrol in January of 1994.

During the four years that followed, he received several awardsfor recovering numerous stolen vehicles. In one high-speed chase, for example, he safely apprehended someone suspected of fatally shooting a fellow police officer. He was named employee of the month, and team employee of the month in 1996. He received letters of congratulation from the superintendent of the Ohio State Highway Patrol, and Gov. George Voinovich.

But today, Houston is a shift manager of the local Blue Beacon Truck Wash–a change in occupation that he attributes to giving too many truckers a break on their traffic violations.

"Why should I take (a trucker's) livelihood for a speeding ticket," he asks. "Why would I ruin these guys' lives with a third moving violation?"

In December of 1998, Houston was convicted on eight counts of misdemeanor falsification. According to newspaper reports, patrol investigators claimed Houston admitted he had "fudged" records to make it appear that he had written more tickets to truckers than he actually did.

Houston, 32, was also indicted on eight felony counts of forgery. The counts were later dropped, and Tim Houston pleaded guilty to the falsification charges. He was given two years suspended sentence and ordered to spend 90 days under house arrest. He was fired from the Ohio Highway Patrol.

Houston, who once drove a 22-foot straight truck, says that his troubles came from tearing up tickets he'd written to commercial drivers. He says his willingness to let a trucker go, rather than write him/her a citation did not translate well with the goals of the highway patrol.

"Yes, I know I violated departmental policy and procedure," he says. "The only thing I did was give somebody a break and then tore up the ticket."

He remembers one of the first instances that led to his termination. He had stopped a trucker for speeding and asked him to sit in the front seat of the patrol car while he filled out the citation. Originally, Houston says he had every intention of giving the trucker the ticket, until the two started talking.

"I found out his life, what he's going through, he has kids and everything, and it was going to be his third moving violation," he says. "I had the ticket written out... and finally I said, ‘Listen, you promise you're going to slow it down? I'm just going to give you a warning.'"

Houston voided out the ticket, and says later that a supervisor scolded him.

"I got reprimanded for it," he says. "For giving somebody a break. ‘Just because of personal reasons' wasn't a valid excuse."

At various points in the future, the situation repeated itself. Houston says he omitted the tickets, but didn't void them out. He accounted for the omitted tickets on a tracking sheet, which gave the appearance that he was trying to pad his commercial activity numbers. This eventually led to the charges.

According to Houston, truckers are cast in a negative light as early as during training at the police academy. He says one of his instructors referred to the typical trucker as a "dirty, rotten, stinking, filthy, gear-jammer."

"There's an animosity towards (truckers)," he says. "It seems like they try to portray the lowest life form is a truckdriver. They try to imbed that into the back of your mind the whole time."

Houston's allegations appear to correlate with the state's guidelines for giving citations to commercial drivers. According to a copy of the 1998 Medina, OH, operational strategies, troopers are expected to "commit themselves to a 20 percent enforcement index" of commercial vehicles, meaning essentially that 20 percent of their tickets should come from commercial vehicles.

But a 1998 pamphlet issued by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics indicates that commercial trucks make up less than four percent of all the vehicles on the interstates. In order to compensate, Houston says truckers are often issued multiple citations.

"The state highway patrol in Ohio wants you to nail truckdrivers as often and as many as you can get," he says. "And you'll see most troopers, they'll stop a truckdriver and give them multiple citations on one stop. They'll sit there and they'll try to get them for speed, for seat belt, and any equipment violation that they can get."

Similarly, Houston says the highway patrol will occasionally send out "task forces" that target only commercial vehicles. He says the task forces ignore passenger cars.

"When you're on one of those squads, a car can go past you at 80 to 85 mph and you let it go because you're just looking for a truck," Houston says.

In terms of numbers, Houston says his "activity" with the highway patrol was consistently at a high level. When it came to writing tickets, giving warnings, and pursuing criminal cases, Houston says he led his post. The only category in which he says he didn't outscore the other officers was in commercial vehicle citations.

"The highest I ever had (my commercial citations) over a year was eight percent of my activity," he says of his commercial citations. "And every year when I got my grading, I got the same thing. ‘Oh your activity is great... but man your commercial activity (is terrible). And you had best bring it up.'"

In terms of auto accidents, Houston says that speed was often cited incorrectly as the cause. He says that of approximately 12 codes available to help define the reason behind an accident, he was purposely encouraged to use only a select few. The idea, he says, was to justify the call for more troopers.

"Even if the crash happened a certain way and you have a cause code that explains it, they tell you, ‘No, you're not allowed to use that one,'" he says. "‘They wanted to see that it was ‘unsafe for conditions, or speed-related accidents.' You're like, ‘Yeah, but that's not what happened.' They want everything to be listed under speed."

Ohio currently observes a split speed limit law, whereby trucks are required to drive at a slower rate of speed than passenger vehicles. The state says the idea is to prevent the number of fatal crashes. But in Houston's opinion, the main motive behind Ohio's split speed limit laws isn't necessarily to prevent accidents.

"They say it's for safety reasons, but I truly feel that the only reason there's a split speed limit is to generate revenue," he says. "They can use their numbers of crashes versus citations and say this is the reason why we do it," Houston says. "But I think it's all revenue. They don't really want warnings. They'd much rather see you write 20 tickets a day than write 10 tickets and give out 10 warnings. They would much rather see you just give out 20 tickets."

Houston says that ultimately the reason he lost his job with the highway patrol was due to a difference in philosophy. He says that he currently has no desire to be in law enforcement, and is more interested in "clearing the record" to get his criminal record expunged. He maintains that he followed his conscience and reacted according to his personal beliefs.

"(The highway patrol's) job is to change driving behavior," he maintains. "To alter it. If you can change somebody's driving behavior by giving them a warning, then your job is well served."