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14 May2009

Dutchess County Justices dismiss NY State Trooper Tickets

In 2006, New York State Police (the State Troopers) stopped negotiating plea bargains (reducing the severity of the violation charged) with respect to the tickets they issue. The Troopers argue it was a move to prevent allegations of impropriety, favoritism and corruption. Many (myself included) feel it was simply related to overtime and the additional hours in court spent negotiating these deals.

Courts rely on these plea bargains. It allows them to collect fine money, impose a fair punishment on the recipient of the ticket and avoid the more costly and time consuming trial that takes place when a plea bargain has not been negotiated.

I have argued since day one that this was unfair. Whether a driver can negotiate a lower charge and/or fine depends on where they get a ticket and from whom. Moreover, how do we reconcile the fact that an accused murderer is more likely to be offered a deal and negotiated with in certain courts than someone who got caught speeding?

Many lawyers have cited the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which mandates that laws be applied equally to everyone, to argue that the State Police policy prevents drivers from receiving equal justice.

Many towns have avoided the State Police directive by assigning special prosecutors who can offer deals to drivers who are given tickets by troopers. This adds fuel to the equal protection argument, lawyers say, because drivers ticketed by troopers in towns with those special prosecutors are treated differently from those in towns without them.

Without special prosecutors, there have been incidents where judges dismiss or reduce tickets, even when troopers object. There have been two such cases in Dutchess County. Clinton Town Justice Barbara Seelbach last month dismissed “in the furtherance of justice” a speeding ticket issued by state police, ruling it would be an “injustice” to allow the driver to be prosecuted by a trooper who is blocked by state policy from plea-bargaining. Prior to that, in 2007 Milan Town Justice Frank Christensen reduced a speeding ticket issued by a state trooper, saying the policy against plea-bargaining. “regardless of a defendant’s unique circumstances, … is an improper and unreasonable position.”

As a NY traffic ticket attorney, the fact of the matter is that this policy hasn’t affected our clients as much as we expected (we also expected that this would only last for a couple of weeks). There has almost always been a work around like the special prosecutors in situations where the Trooper would otherwise prosecute. That said, I do hope the few hold outs come around soon and that judges who feel their hands are tied will follow the lead of the Dutchess County Justices and side with the motorists.