TRAVERSE CITY — Grand Traverse County Sheriff Tom Bensley's plan to offer a ticket-writing bounty to deputies who patrolled a U.S. 31 construction zone backfired, and caused more trouble for him than it did the targeted motorists.
At least 35 traffic citations issued between April 30 and May 2 could be dismissed after Grand Traverse County Prosecutor Bob Cooney found Bensley's offer of paid time off for deputies who issued five tickets potentially ran afoul of state law.
Bensley's bounty prompted outrage on social media and a hasty reversal of promised time off to seven deputies, but likely not legal troubles.
Cooney -- who called Bensley's offer "bad public policy" -- stopped short of citing Bensley and the deputies for violating a state law that prohibits officers from benefiting for issuing tickets. He said that's in part because Bensley reversed his position and didn't seem to intentionally break the law.
"Ignorance of the law is no defense, generally," Cooney said. "At the same time, I have to exercise some discretion when I'm acting as prosecuting attorney. There was no bad intent here, there was nothing in it for the sheriff."
Bensley admitted he made a "mistake." He said he floated the offer last week after fielding concerns that restrictions on left turns on U.S. 31 at the intersections of Three and Four Mile roads could drive motorists into surrounding gas station and hotel parking lots.
The intent was to reward deputies for stepping up enforcement, Bensley said.
"I said let's do this," he said. "That was just to say, 'Hey, you guys go out there and work hard. We'll reward you with this incentive.' We find out now that, gee, you can't do that."
At least one sheriff's official grew concerned that the offer could run afoul of state law. Undersheriff Nate Alger said that's what he thought when he learned about it last week through an email sent out to patrol deputies.
"While (Bensley's) intentions were good, he was not familiar with the statute," Alger said.
Alger said they took the concerns up with Cooney, who ultimately found Wednesday it could violate a state law that prohibits police officers from receiving fees for issuing citations. Cooney said time off or another reward is a "fee," but said there's "a lot of room for guesswork" under the law.
"For that reason, I don't think it's a blatant violation of the law," he said. "I don't think it's an intentional violation of the law ... .
"Nevertheless, I think this is bad public policy," he said. "I think this sends the wrong message to the public."
Bensley said the offer continued until Sunday because of questions about whether the reward could be considered a "fee." Alger said Cooney's decision means officers who issued enough tickets to qualify for time off now won't receive the benefit.
"We are withdrawing the benefit and reneging on the promise," he said.
It also means at least 35 citations issued under the offer will be rescinded. Eighty-sixth District Court Administrator Carol Stocking said sheriff's officials told court staff that documentation about the tickets would soon arrive.
"When we do get that, we will dismiss the tickets and refund any monies," she said.
Bensley said he's not aware of similar offers made to deputies in the past.
"We were asked to address a problem, which we did," he said. "Obviously, our method was wrong. The next time people present us with a problem, we won't use this method."