Criminal Traffic Court is the Best Option: NMA E-Newsletter #450

Whose side are we on anyway?

The NMA objects when cities lower the traffic court bar, downgrading routine moving violations from criminal to civil offenses while also issuing lesser fines and eliminating points against defendant driving records.

Again, why would we do that?

To answer those questions, look no further than the example of jurisprudence gone wrong set by New York City’s Traffic Violation Bureau (TVB). The TVB traffic courts afford no real due process for defendants. They are administered by judges who are Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) employees. There is no prosecutor or negotiation, just the ticketing officer’s testimony. Short of the officer not showing up for the hearing or the judge not believing the cop’s account – don’t hold your breath – the odds are stacked heavily against the defendant.

One of the judges who oversee the Staten Island traffic court is so reviled for his rude, dismissive and often hostile attitude toward defendants as well as his 80+ percent conviction rate that residents have organized a petition to ask New York Governor Cuomo to remove him.

As one New York traffic attorney put it, “There is no mercy or intelligence in TVB. I’ve seen truckers get eight equipment tickets. If the cop puts them in NYC criminal court, showing proof [of equipment repair] is ground for dismissals. If the cop puts them in TVB, guilty x $500 each charge with two weeks to pay.

“The rules of Administrative Traffic Tribunals do not mirror those of a Court, and usually specifically state that Court rules of evidence, hearsay, and discovery do NOT apply.  Most motorists think they are in a Court, when, in reality, they are in a DMV office.  Notably, you don’t need to be found guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt”.  Most Tribunals use “clear and convincing” which is legally a much lower standard.”

New York City, and particularly Staten Island, might seem like an extreme case but it is not unusual for traffic court in many cities across the country to conduct administrative,  not criminal, proceedings. The presiding magistrate might well be a local attorney contracted by the municipality to mete out justice on its behalf. Police are frequently accused of enforcing ticket quotas but one has to wonder whether some judges in these administrative courts have ticket revenue quotas.

When traffic ticket recipients are faced with TVB-type courts where critical defense rights like evidence discovery or even making motions to the judge are tossed aside, defendants quickly learn that they are probably facing a lost cause. Throw in the additional inducements of lower fines (but a higher capture rate by the city) and no driving record points and the disincentive to fight a ticket is complete.

Give us a traffic court where the rules of a criminal proceeding allow defendants to challenge the merits of the charges against them using the full toolkit of due process rights afforded by the U.S. Constitution. It is the only way to keep traffic court judges from becoming not much more than money collectors.

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