MONTICELLO A New York State Police Decree removing the responsibility of plea bargaining from troopers after they write tickets for traffic violations has caused pandemonium in the legal system and caused new action by state legislators.
Town boards are upset because they will be losing precious revenue, and Sullivan County District Attorney Stephen Lungen says he doesnt have the manpower to handle the plea bargains, which the new law asks him to do.
Even the troopers themselves are upset. The New York State Police Benevolent Association is opposing the move by their superintendent.
A new bill, authored by New York State Senator John Bonacic, would return the process back to the status quo. Bonacic said the rank and file of the state police have asked for the new legislation, as have district attorneys, judges and municipalities. The bill passed both houses of the legislature nearly unanimously, said Bonacic. New York State Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther has also backed the bill.
At press time, it was learned that Governor Pataki had vetoed the bill. Lungen said he supports the bill, since the state police decree would put 25,000 traffic cases in front of his staff of eight assistant attorneys.
Lungen said there are 36 criminal courts in the county. That would likely mean an increase of 50 more appearances each month for his staff to various courts. Currently, his staff has appearances in twenty courts each week, in addition to its regular county court dealings.
Lungen estimates he would need three more attorneys to handle the new load. With a budget crunch in the county, that is essentially out of the question. The DA called the actions by the State Police administration another unfunded mandate.
Its impossible to have eight people do all that, he stated. His office is currently negotiating deals with some lawyers, but his staff does not have the time to appear in court. If there is no plea bargaining, then the case has to go to trial which means the troopers will have to show up. Bonacic said the rank and file of the state police are upset about the decree because they could end up spending a large portion of the day in court waiting to go to trial.
Lungen blasted the state police brass for issuing the decree in the middle of a budget year, when there are no funds to deal with the increased responsibility.
No officials from the State Police Superintendents office could be reached as of press time. Bonacic said the new system would paralyze the justice system. You are uprooting a system that has worked for forty years, he stated.
When speeding violations are reduced to non-moving violations, the fine goes to the local municipality where the traffic stop was. If there is no reduction, the fine goes to the state. Bonacic suggested the administration of the State Police may be trying to gain more revenue for itself through the new decree.
Tom Mungeer, the First Vice President of the State Police PBA, who is stationed in Liberty, and who is a lifelong resident of the county, believes state police administrators are trying to save on overtime.
He said the brass is hoping that motorists give on going to trial and send in guilty pleas. But in the short term, Mungeer expects state police to spend more time in courts, going to trial.
Another major issue for Mungeer is the increased tax burden the decree will place on counties such as Sullivan, who cannot afford to hire more district attorneys to prosecute traffic tickets.
In addition, Mungeer said that not all violators of traffic law should be treated equally. Some deserve breaks based on their driving record. You cant paint everybody with the same brush, he stated.
Mungeer said that if Pataki were to veto the new legislation, the taxpayers will suffer. Munger said the governor has been feeling a lot of pressure from municipalities, judges, DAs and the State Police union.
My taxes are high enough
How much more before a mans legs buckle, he asked rhetorically.
Currently, he said troopers are appearing in court and going to trial. Some defendants are asking judges for a reduction in penalty, as a way to go around the new decree. But Mungeer said the process is currently bogged down.
Town of Thompson Supervisor Anthony Cellini says his town averages about $180,000 a year in revenue from the traffic stops. He is supporting the new bill, and said the old system is much more efficient.
The senator summed up his opinion of the state police decree as crazy and a bad regulation.