HOPEWELL When Hopewell sheriff’s Deputy Sean Godwin stopped Isaiah Hall last spring for speeding 95 mph on Interstate 295, he was surprised to see six children and another adult packed inside Hall’s van — none of them wearing safety belts or restrained in child seats.
The youngsters, as it turned out, were Hall’s grandchildren, ages 4, 6, 9, 12, 13 and 15. The family, which included Hall’s adult daughter, was returning to East Orange, N.J., after attending a funeral in North Carolina.
“No one had on a seat belt and there were two children who should have had been restrained in booster seats by Virginia law,” said Hopewell prosecutor Elisabeth Custalow.
Because the children were left unprotected in a vehicle traveling 95 mph, authorities charged Hall — who was also driving on a suspended license — with three counts of felony child endangerment related to the three youngest children.
Another surprise was to follow.
After Godwin arrested Hall and drove him to jail, the deputy discovered two paper bags containing heroin where Hall had been sitting in the patrol car. “When they lifted up the back seat of the patrol vehicle, they found three more paper baggies containing the powdered substance,” Custalow said.
Hall admitted it was heroin and that he had taken some of the drug at 4 a.m. – about six hours before he was stopped.
Hall explained that his family had a booster seat for at least one of the smaller children, but they had to leave it behind when one of their two cars broke down and everyone had to “cram in” the remaining vehicle to get home, Custalow said.
On Wednesday, Hall, 57, pleaded guilty in Hopewell Circuit Court to possession of heroin and three counts of endangering the lives of his grandchildren. He earlier was found guilty in a lower court of reckless driving, driving on a suspended license, two counts of failing to place children younger than 7 in safety seats and four counts of failing to buckle up the older children.
When he is sentenced May 22, state sentencing guidelines will likely call for no more than a year in jail, the prosecutor said.
Hall was stopped April 7 along Hopewell’s so-called “million-dollar mile,” where the city’s sheriff’s department has operated a controversial traffic-enforcement program since 2006 that has generated considerable revenue for Hopewell.
The citation Hall received for speeding was one of 525 issued by the sheriff’s office last year for motorists traveling between 90 and 99 mph. Deputies issued 19 citations for speeds above 100 mph, according to statistics kept by Hopewell Sheriff Greg Anderson.
In all, the sheriff’s office issued 11,933 citations along Hopewell’s 1 to 2-mile section of I-295 in 2012, with assessed fines topping $1.5 million. Hopewell’s share stands at $741,814 through the first six months of 2012.
Because of a change in state law last year that was aimed at restraining traffic-enforcement programs like Hopewell’s, the city’s share of traffic fines has been reduced. The sheriff’s office doesn’t yet know how much Hopewell will collect in fine revenue for the last six months of 2012.
In 2011, the traffic enforcement effort resulted in 14,778 citations and $2,056,387 in assessed fines, with Hopewell pocketing $1,642,954 of that.
Virginia’s two-year, $85 billion dollar budget passed in 2012 included an amendment by Sen. John Watkins, R-Powhatan, who questioned whether Hopewell’s I-295 program was geared more toward collecting money than enforcing traffic laws. The amendment mandates that when local fines and fee collections exceed 40 percent of total revenue collections, half of the funds in excess of 40 percent will go to the state’s Literary Fund.
The amendment still infuriates Anderson, who called the measure a “political vendetta against me.”
“They created this complicated formula that … they drew up around Hopewell and our (traffic enforcement) stats,” Anderson said. “Hopewell was No. 1 in the state with $108,000 taken from our program (in fiscal 2011-12) and given to the state.