The long-standing practice of allowing drivers caught speeding in the region’s towns and villages to plead down their tickets to parking violations could be dramatically curtailed under Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s budget.
That worries leaders from Amherst to Elma who rely on the revenue. Hundreds of thousands, even millions, of dollars are collected in area town courts through this reduced charge system.
“I hope our state legislators realize that this is just a money grab by the state,” Amherst Town Supervisor Barry A. Weinstein said.
For years, towns and villages across the state have relied on revenue collected through this practice.
Speeding drivers are ticketed and then show up to the town or village court. As long as the driver doesn’t have a record of dangerous traffic violations and the speeding wasn’t excessive, more often than not, the driver is allowed to plead to a lesser, nonmoving violation, most often a ticket for “parking on a highway” or something similar. They often are ordered to go to traffic school as well.
It’s an arrangement that makes both motorists and towns happy.
Drivers aren’t stuck with points on their licenses that can cost hundreds of extra dollars in insurance.
The towns and villages get to keep the revenue from those tickets – income that can be significant for many towns.
If the tickets remain speeding tickets, all of that money goes straight to the state. And that’s what the governor wants in his new budget.
In unveiling his proposal to do away with the practice, the governor last week said that the state loses out on $58 million because of the reduced charges.
He also argued that it’s dangerous, because these nonmoving “parking” violations don’t show up on the records of repeat offenders.
In 2011, for instance, there were 393,000 convictions for such “parking” violations. According to the governor’s office, 374,000 of those were pleaded down from something else.
Seventy-seven thousand were pleaded down from speeding tickets – and about 20,000 of those were for driving more than 20 mph over the speed limit.
To restrict the practice, Cuomo proposes an array of new rules:
First, he wants anyone who is caught going more than 20 mph over the speed limit to face a mandatory point-bearing violation.
He also wants to add an $80 surcharge to the types of parking violations that drivers are allowed to plead down to from a speeding ticket.
The governor also is calling for a mandatory minimum fine of $50 for a first offense of using a cellphone or texting while driving.
The proposal to restrict plea bargaining won’t end the practice, and town prosecutors will continue to have the discretion to plead down cases, according to Morris Peters, a spokesman for the governor’s budget division.
“Locals will still be able to offer a plea. They will still be able to collect the fine. The fine is not changed,” Peters said.
Governor’s officials pointed out that while the $80 surcharge on the “parking” violations will go to the state, the new $50 fine will go straight to the town where the violation occurred.
The state also isn’t expected to recoup all of the $58 million it is losing out on through the plea bargains, governor’s officials said. The state is expecting to bring in about $16 million in the next fiscal year and $25 million in the year after that from the new rules and surcharge.
“The point of this is public safety,” said Peters, who emphasized that the proposal would make sure judges know about drivers who are caught going excessively fast, time and time again.
“It’s important that judges who are making these plea decisions know what the records are,” Peters said. “If there are pattern speeders on the road, it’s important they have a deterrence, especially if they’re racking up multiple speeding violations. That’s why we’re doing this.”
Local officials expressed concerns about the impact the bill could have on their town and village coffers.
“It’s a financial issue,” Weinstein said.
Amherst collected $1.6 million in 2011 from its town court system, and the vast majority of that money came from the reduced speeding violations, Weinstein said.
“We want to keep the court revenues in the town as much as possible,” he said.
Elma would have a hard time keeping up its ability to stay within the 2 percent local tax cap imposed by the state if the plea bargaining stops, Town Supervisor Dennis M. Powers said.
“I’m vehemently opposed to it,” he said.
More than 11.5 percent of the town’s general fund comes from its town court, which handled 1,656 speeding tickets in 2011. That brought in more than $280,000 to Elma.
The practice is common in Elma, but not abused, Elma Town Judge Joseph Sakowski said.
“I think the town judge or village judge or city judge has the discretion not to accept” the plea bargain, he said.
He said the town keeps a record of everyone arrested in Elma for speeding, even if the conviction is for a reduced violation.
“So if someone has done it before in the Town of Elma,” Sakowski said, “I know about it.”
He conceded that if the driver got a break from another judge, he likely would not know.
Albany officials are still studying the bill, but there’s widespread skepticism about the real motive behind it.
Peter Baynes, executive director of the New York State Conference of Mayors, said his organization is still studying the bill but is concerned “it’s really just a revenue raiser for the state cloaked in traffic safety clothes.”
Gerry Geist, executive director of the Association of Towns, said it’s not clear how much the new rules really restrict plea bargaining.
He wondered, for instance, whether there are point-bearing violations where the fines go to the town.
If plea bargaining of tickets is restricted, it also could create a backlog in town courts, because more motorists might decide to take their speeding cases to trial rather than simply pay a fine.
“It will impose, in my view, an additional burden on the town,” said Carl Morgan, Hamburg’s town prosecutor.
“More people opting for trial ... is going to increase the cost for the local courts,” he said, pointing out that it’s not uncommon to have 150 people lined up for traffic court on a Monday.
“That’s a problem they don’t, maybe, appreciate,” he said.