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Dent pulls plug on roadblock insurance tickets

A Vicksburg police officer checks a driver’s paperwork on U.S. 61 North Monday. (The Vicksburg Post/MELANIE DUNCAN)

[02/16/01] After writing at least 11 tickets to motorists who could not provide proof of insurance at roadblocks during the past four days, Vicksburg police were pulled back Thursday.

Officers will still be writing tickets for those who don’t have insurance cards as required by state law, but they won’t be writing them at roadblocks, at least for a while, Police Chief Mitchell Dent said.

The state law that went into effect Jan. 1 requires all drivers to have proof of liability coverage while operating vehicles in Mississippi. However, when the wording in the law makes lack of insurance a secondary offense. Specifically, it says proof can be required of drivers “stopped for another offense.” Since roadblocks stop all vehicles, drivers are not being “stopped for another offense.”

The Vicksburg Police Department, using grant money to pay overtime rates, set up roadblocks to check for compliance with child restraint laws. In the process they issued 11 tickets to people for not having the required proof of insurance coverage, records show.

Because what has been perceived as confusion all the way up the law enforcement ladder to the Mississippi Highway Patrol, Dent Thursday issued new instructions to Vicksburg police officers.

“What I told them was we will continue to enforce the law,” Dent said Thursday afternoon, “but I want them to issue proof of insurance violation citations only when they issue a citation for a primary violation.”

Some examples of primary violations, the chief said, are running a stop sign, reckless driving and any other type of moving violation.

The effect of the new instructions, he said, was to suspend enforcement of the proof of insurance requirement at roadblocks.

Attorney General Mike Moore’s office has already issued two opinions, one to Sheriff Randy Tolar of Prentiss County and one to Police Chief Sammy Webb of Senatobia, dealing with when an officer can issue a citation.

In the letter to Tolar, Special Assistant Attorney General David Scott said, “It is the opinion of this office that a law enforcement officer may not ask a motorist stopped at a roadblock for proof of insurance unless that officer observes some other statutory violation by the motorist.”

Scott told Webb the same thing in the letter to him.

Nancy Thomas, head of the city’s legal department, said the city can use those opinions, which are advisory in nature.

Dent said the Vicksburg Police Department will ask Vicksburg Municipal Court to continue the cases against the 11 motorists cited at this week’s roadblocks until they receive clarification. Depending on clarification, the cases will either be remanded to the files or will be processed in municipal court.

To his knowledge, Dent said no one has been prosecuted for not having proof of insurance.

“We will do our part to enforce the law,” said Lt. David Beard, head of the police department traffic division. He then referred questions to Dent.