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You'll stop there or be stopped

Vt. traffic officer's dedication famed

ISLAND POND, Vt. - He is feared and reviled as far away as Boston and New Jersey. He has been blogged about, threatened, and sued. He made one Vermonter so furious, the man ran for state attorney general in a failed attempt to end the career of his nemesis.

Constable Ted Miller has become infamous for his enforcement of motor vehicle laws in this remote lakeside village. Supporters say he is meticulous; critics call him a menace who has hurt Island Pond's effort to become a tourist haven for leaf-peepers and snowmobilers. His tireless work staking out the stop sign in the village center, where he issues hundreds of $199 tickets every year, has made him a legend.

But off duty, the burly constable is an easygoing presence who defends his reputation with practiced, unflappable calm.

"When I issue a ticket, it's not personal," he explains. " I don't remember their names. But they take it personally, and it's almost a revenge thing."

Revenge has gotten easier in an electronic age. Tales of Miller's merciless punishments, allegedly suffered by innocents, litter the Internet. According to the constable, his detractors' complaints are exaggerated. He denies telling motorists they must pause for a full 3 seconds at the stop sign, or demanding that motorcyclists place both feet on the ground. To prove that he is following the letter of the law, he records video and audio of every traffic stop.

True or not, the stories may have had the intended effect: scaring off the tourists the town has tried to court. Local merchants say "Teddy," as he is known here, has hurt their businesses with his relentless ticketing.

"Why would you come here, knowing somebody's just waiting for you to do something wrong?" said Danny Dittner, owner of the Clyde River Hotel.

Dittner flipped through his guest book to point out the latest cancellation, a couple from New Jersey who fled town after getting a ticket. ("Teddy ruined" was scrawled in the margin.)

Miller, 58, says he is simply enforcing the laws, and trying to keep the town safe.

"Certain people don't like to follow motor vehicle laws, or stop at stop signs, and that's just the way it is," he said.

Many such people pass through Island Pond, it seems. The constable, who is paid to work 32 hours, handed out 1,224 traffic tickets and 1,662 warnings last year. He estimates that half his tickets are issued at the stop sign at Main and Cross streets, a four-way intersection in the middle of the downtown business district.

In Stowe, a town with four times as many residents and 10 full-time patrol officers, police issued 978 traffic tickets last year, 20 percent fewer than Miller issued in tiny Island Pond.

Selectmen have no authority over Miller, who has been elected to his job every spring since 1983. But they have done what they can to warn visitors. Signs on the edges of town alert drivers to strict enforcement.

There is talk of buying Miller a marked police car to make him more visible during his weekend stakeouts.

Recent public rants by ticket recipients have not been the stuff of Chamber of Commerce brochures. "Avoid Island Pond like the plague and pass the word," reads one message on the website speedtrap.org, run by the National Motorists Association.

A visitor from Burlington, Vt., wrote to a local newspaper that his recent run-in with the constable was like being "caught in a bad '60s movie in some backwater southern town where a Rod Steiger-like sheriff sits in his car waiting to prey on unsuspecting out-of-towners."

In an interview, Miller seemed happiest reminiscing about the wilder days of his youth, when he played drums in local country rock and Top 40 bands. He notes proudly that he earned $18,000 playing music in 1972, and he admits that he received two speeding tickets in the 1970s. As constable, Miller is paid about $30,000 a year, plus a $9,000 car allowance. These days, he said, he lives "in a bubble," under constant scrutiny, but he has gotten used to it.

At Miller's modest home, birch trees frame the view of placid Island Pond, and pet cats prowl the living room. In his tidy basement office, he files a handwritten index card for every ticket he issues. Two dozen metal drawers hold the videotapes of his traffic stops.

At the request of a reporter who chose an incident at random, the constable showed how a woman from Conway, Mass., mischaracterized what he said when he ticketed her for running the stop sign. The woman wrote a letter to the Barton Chronicle in August to complain.

"Just because I didn't stop for a full '3 seconds' I got this ticket," wrote the driver. On the tape, however, "What did I do?" the woman asks when Miller pulls her over, after she rolls slowly through the stop sign in her silver station wagon. "You didn't stop at the stop sign," he explains from behind his sunglasses, before writing her a $199 ticket. No one mentions a 3-second rule.

In a phone interview, the driver, Pixie Holbrook, said she may have "mingled" the facts of the incident with the criticism of Miller she later read on the Internet. But she maintained that the intersection is complex, "and he's taking advantage of that confusion, and I resent that." On the tape, Holbrook tells Miller the steep fine "took my breath away."

"I've gotten a couple of tickets, and it's done the same thing to me," the constable replies, heading back to the stop sign. "Take care, ma'am."

Jenna Russell can be reached at jrussell@globe.com.

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