What began as a simple traffic stop one brisk October night in 2006 has escalated into a war of words between Sen. John Douglas (R-Covington) and the City of Conyers -- and the Conyers Police Department and has reached as high as Lt. Governor Casey Cagle's office.
On Oct. 16, after driving home from a Republican rally at the Church at Covington, Douglas was pulled over driving on Interstate 20 east of Conyers in Newton County by an off-duty Conyers police officer who reportedly observed him "driving erratically," according to a letter written to Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle from Conyers City Manager Tony Lucas.
The officer reportedly suspected a possible DUI and radioed it in, however when he approached Douglas' car he observed that the case of the reported erratic driving was the result of Douglas talking on his cell phone while driving. Douglas was allowed to continue on his way without citation.
The News, after hearing of a possible DUI by a state senator up for re-election, investigated the incident. Upon learning of this, Douglas took quick action to clarify to The News that a DUI had not occurred, going so far as to travel to the CPD to review police footage of the incident with a reporter from The News to confirm it. After seeing the footage, The News concluded that the incident did not merit a story and dropped it without further coverage.
Douglas, however, was enraged by what he believed to be a common practice of the CPD: patrolling outside Conyers city limits and into Newton County in search of traffic violators.
"This happens too often for me to believe that it's anything other than just standard procedure for them," said Douglas. "They (Newton County law enforcement officers) are perfectly capable of handling the law enforcement duties without having Conyers come over here."
Lucas, on the other hand, suggests Douglas' intentions are far from civic minded.
"It is purely personal because he was pulled over and he didn't like it and he's trying to make an issue," Lucas said.
Conyers Police Chief David Cathcart denies that Conyers police officers patrol outside the city limits looking for traffic violators, but did add that Georgia law allows officers to pull over drivers who commit traffic violations within their presence, even if it is outside of their territory. Cathcart listed the following Georgia statutes on the matter in a July 5 letter to Robert Dallas, director of the Governor's Office of Highway Safety:
"Generally, an officer has the authority to make an arrest only in the territory of the governmental unit which appointed him or her ... However, an officer may make an arrest anywhere in the state after following the offender out of this territory while in hot pursuit ... In addition, Georgia officers have the authority to arrest for a moving violation committed in their presence."
Said Cathcart, "From all indications and everything that I've gathered, we're not doing anything in violation of the law and we'll continue to conduct our business within the confines of the law."
A number of conversations took place behind the scenes over the traffic stops in Newton County involving Douglas (whose district includes three precincts in southeast Rockdale County), Lucas, Conyers Mayor Randy Mills and Rep. Robert Mumford (R-Conyers).
During one such conversation on Jan. 12 - the details of which are disputed - Douglas said he sat and listened as Mayor Mills told him that the CPD would no longer conduct traffic stops within Newton County.
"I did hear him say that. He sat right next to me when he said it," said Douglas of the conversation. "What Tony Lucas did was to refuse to relay that to the police department because the police department knows nothing about that."
Lucas, however, disputes that Mills ever said any such thing and insists Mils said the opposite: that CPD would continue to operate as it had been, within the confines of Georgia law. Lucas said he provided Douglas with the above statutes, which allow for officers from a neighboring jurisdiction to conduct traffic stops and make arrests in special instances.
"I told him in that initial meeting, you're the senator - if you don't like the law as written, change it," Lucas said. "We're just required to enforce the laws that you all created."
Since the January meeting, Lucas claims that Douglas has been harassing CPD officers whom he sees conducting traffic stops in Newton County.
"He has stopped his vehicle on numerous occasions in the area of our officers' traffic stops on the interstate and even attempted to interfere with them," wrote Lucas in a July 11 letter to Casey Cagle.
A former Conyers police chief himself, Lucas says Douglas poses a distraction to police officers conducting traffic stops and is even endangering their lives.
"You have no clue when you pull that violator over what you're getting," said Lucas. "He's getting himself onto some thin ice if he continues to interrupt these officers in the performance of their duties."
However in his own letter to Cagle, Douglas adamantly denies Lucas' allegations that he routinely stops his vehicle when he sees CPD conducting traffic stops in Newton County.
In the letter to Cagle dated July 16, Douglas writes that he only once stopped to witness a CPD traffic stop:
"I stopped on the access road June 29, 2007 to witness a stop more than two miles inside Newton County. I remained on the access road, while they were on the interstate. I called for a Newton County Deputy, who arrived to also watch their activities. I asked from a distance for them to call their supervisor to the scene, Major Scott Freeman, who did not come."
It was after the above June 29 incident that Douglas decided to take the then private disagreement public by writing to Robert Dallas with the Governor's Office of Highway Safety on July 2 to request that CPD no longer be able to participate in GOHS roadblocks in his five-county Senate district.
"This all came about when they refused to reign in their stops and arrests in Newton County," said Douglas. "We talked about it in private a number of times. That didn't' work. So my request that they not be invited over here by the state to participate in state patrol activities still stands."
A complaint was also filed against CPD with the Georgia Department of Public Safety on July 3 regarding the proper operation of speed detection devices. An audit is presently taking place to verify whether or not CPD is deriving 40 percent or more of its total budget through fines collected from speeding violations, which is against the law.
Lucas said he is confident CPD will pass the inspection.
"That law was written for these little small departments that have in fact created speed traps to fund their local governments," said Lucas, adding that with a budget in excess of $3 million annually, it was highly unlikely that CPD had collected anywhere near the approximate $1.2 million that would constitute 40 percent of the department's revenue.
"It's absurd and I'm very confident that that audit will turn out very much in our favor," said Lucas. "They get two to five complaints a month and they're required to check into all of them."
It wasn't until after Sen. Ron Ramsey (D-Lithonia) informed the City of Conyers that he had had a conversation with Douglas that Lucas decided to write to Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle. Douglas reportedly told Ramsey he was concerned some of CPD's traffic stops constituted racial profiling of black motorists, adding that he would ensure the Hotel-Motel tax legislation (which Conyers is in support of) would never get out of committee at the State Senate so long as CPD continued the traffic stops in Newton County.
In a letter dated July 11, Lucas detailed much of what has already been written above to Cagle and concluded by writing, "The fine citizens and employees of the City of Conyers will not stand by and have their names tarnished or be intimidated by a rogue senator with a personal agenda."
Upon reading the letter, Douglas immediately fired back with his own letter to Cagle, dated July 16, in which he defended himself against Lucas' criticism that he was endangering the lives of Conyers police officers conducting traffic stops.
"No person can allow a letter with such falsehoods and distortions to stand unchallenged," wrote Douglas. "This is not a disagreement between the rank and file of Conyers Police Department or the citizens of Conyers and myself. It is a very fundamental disagreement on policy that is impacting the reputation of Conyers."
When questioned about comments he reportedly made to Ramsey regarding the blocking of legislation Conyers was in support of, Douglas said he would not discuss conversations he had with other senators which he said are privileged.
"I don't make threats," said Douglas. "I don't need to make threats."
Douglas did add that he had conversations with the director of the Conyers/Rockdale County Library System to ensure her he was still in support of a $2 million grant proposal for a second library for the system.
"This is speculation on the part of Tony Lucas and his crowd," said Douglas, adding that the "name-calling" on the part of members of the Conyers City Council needed to stop, citing an article in the Rockdale Citizen.
"I think they need to be professional," Douglas said
Said Lucas of Douglas, "I'm beginning to wonder if his title isn't King Douglas instead of Senator Douglas."
Lt. Casey Cagle is reportedly on vacation with his family this week and so has not had time to respond to the letters sent to him by Lucas and Douglas.