By Eric Lindquist, The Leader-Telegram, Eau Claire, Wis.
Clark County Sheriff Greg Herrick considers the new state law regulating the weight of agricultural vehicles to be unconstitutional.
As a result, Herrick, a farmer himself, has decided to take the law into his own hands by not enforcing it.
Herrick said Friday the issue came to a head recently when he became aware of several farmers in surrounding counties that received fines of between $5,000 and $8,000 for simply driving down the road in a tractor.
"I know right from wrong, and this is wrong," Herrick said during a break from planting corn. "This is excessive punishment, and I'm not going to stand for it."
Lt. Mike Klingenberg of the Wisconsin State Patrol, however, said what is known as the Implements of Husbandry law was revised in April 2014 with the goal of balancing the needs of the agriculture industry and concerns about damage to roads from increasingly large farm equipment. Changes grew out of recommendations from a study group comprised of stakeholders representing various transportation and farm organizations, equipment manufacturers, law enforcement, UW-Extension and local government officials.
"Act 377 did not restrict weights in any way on farmers," Klingenberg said. "This expanded the amount of weight they can have compared with other businesses."
The law increased the weight limit for farm vehicles by about 15 percent -- to a maximum of 92,000 pounds -- and also created a no-fee permit that farmers can seek from local governments to exceed limits based on the number of axles on their vehicles. Local governments also were granted the authority to set their own weight limits on roads they maintain.
"It's up to local governments to determine how much weight their roads can handle because all taxpayers have to pay if roads need to be fixed," Klingenberg said.
Herrick remains unconvinced. He issued a news release Friday announcing his position on enforcement, calling the weight limits unrealistic and unattainable.
The final straw for Herrick came in the past two weeks when a good friend of his from a nearby county was driving a large tractor down the road
when he received a fine of $5,800. Herrick called the fine "ridiculous" and insisted his friend's vehicle didn't damage any roads.
"My farmers in my county, they know I farm, and they know right from wrong," Herrick said. "And all they want is a chance to go about their business and make a living and produce food to feed our people without being harassed or imposed with excessive fines and punishments, and I don't blame them."
Herrick claimed thousands of Clark County farmers support his stand on the issue.
"They asked me if I would stand behind them and be their voice and stick with them, and I assured them I would, and that's why I'm sheriff of this county," he said.
Clark County attorney Jacob Brunette said Friday the county had not issued any formal opinion on Act 377 and his office wasn't consulted before Herrick issued the news release.
Klingenberg said Herrick, as his county's chief law enforcement officer, has the authority to make his own decision about how he enforces the law in Clark County. Klingenberg cautioned that the State Patrol still would help with weight restriction enforcement, even in Clark County, if called upon to do so by local governments concerned about damage to roads from overweight vehicles.
Fines are based on how much weight limits are exceeded, he said, noting that one Wisconsin farmer was fined $15,000 since the law took effect for exceeding weight limits by 80,000 pounds.
Such steep fines are levied because the amount of damage to roads increases exponentially by the amount weight limits are exceeded, Klingenberg said.
The State Patrol is more concerned with preservation of infrastructure than the monetary aspect of issuing fines, Klingenberg said, adding, "The bottom line is protecting the highways."
But Herrick insisted citizens have constitutional protection against unreasonable fines.
"I took an oath to protect the constitution," he said. "That's my job to protect it, and I will. And I will be intimidated by nobody over this."
The sheriff said he hopes other state officials follow his lead.
"As far as I am concerned," Herrick said, "every constitutional officer in the state of Wisconsin should be looking at this as outrageous and not enforce it."