By Nathan Mayberg
Albany October 3, 2006 State legislators are planning to override Governor George Pataki’s recent veto of a bill which would return the power of state troopers to plea bargain with defendants on traffic tickets. State Senator John Bonacic announced that the senate will likely do so when it returns to session after this November’s elections. Bonacic said that the support for the bill was nearly unanimous in both the senate and the assembly.
The senator authored the bill in response to a directive from the office of the Superintendent of New York State Police to strip troopers of that right. The brass of the troopers themselves, were opposed to the move, as were many district attorneys and judges throughout the state. As a consequence, the burden has been placed on district attorneys who for the most part, do not have the resources to handle the influx of tickets. Sullivan County District Attorney Stephen Lungen said the new system has been a “nightmare” for his office.
In his veto of the bill, Pataki cited the internal policy of the troopers, which prohibits officers from engaging in such plea bargaining. However, for decades, district attorneys have given that power to the troopers to prosecute and plea bargain their own cases. Until the bill is overridden, troopers in this county will only be able to appear as witnesses in a trial.
Lungen has delegated the authority to troopers to prosecute cases but they have no ability to plea bargain. According to Tom Mungeer, First Vice President of the New York State Troopers Police Benevolent Association, some defendants are requesting judges to reduce their charges. The only other option a defendant has, is to contact the DA’s office to plea bargain, or hire a lawyer to do so. As a matter of practice, Lungen’s office is dealing primarily with the more serious infractions. If that is unsuccessful, the defendant can go to trial.
Spokesmen for Pataki and the State Police referred to the policy of the state police against plea bargaining as the reason for the change. But Mr. Mungeer, who is stationed in Liberty and grew up in Sullivan County, believes the move was intended to cut overtime. In fact, in a letter last March to the District Attorney of Erie County, Glenn Valle, the Counsel for the State Police cited a sharp increase in overtime for troopers over the last decade due to dealing with traffic violations in court.
The State Police account for approximately 43 percent of all speeding citations in the state, 23 percent of all DWI arrests and 25 percent of all safety restraint citations, although they only total roughly six percent of all police personnel in the state, according to statistics provided by Valle.
Bonacic and Mungeer said the move was breaking a system that had worked for decades. “It’s a system that wasn’t broken,” stated Mungeer. “People’s rights are being violated. They have a right to be treated equally and they’re not being treated equally. Before, everybody was treated on an individual basis.”
For example, those with longer records were given harsher penalties than first time offenders. Now, they are being equally penalized, he said. He cited a recent case in the Town of Thompson Court where somebody ticketed for going 72 miles per hour received the same penalty as somebody going 90 miles per hour.
Simple put, Mungeer is “not happy.” However, he said a new Superintendent for the State Police would likely be appointed in January, when a new Governor takes office. Mungeer said he was disappointed in Pataki, who the state police brass had supported for a long time in different ways. “It’s a slap in the face to the people of the State of New York,” stated Mr. Mungeer. As a result, he said the courts are increasingly clogged, and troopers are actually spending more time in court, as are judges and the defendants.
According to the veto and the Superintendent’s decree, the decision was taken in order to avoid the potential appearance of impropriety from an arresting officer soliciting or negotiating reductions in a matter in which they are the complaining witness. Secondly, the Governor opposed the new bill in part, because it would allow a trooper to delegate prosecutorial authority to any other trooper, circumventing the chain of command, and allowing individual members to “make assignment decisions with regard to other members.”
Bonacic repeated his calls that the change in policy was an “unfunded mandate” on local counties to hire more prosecutors to handle the increase in cases. Mr. Lungen expects that he would need about three more assistant DA’s to handle the workload.
New York State Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther, who supported the bill in the assembly, said she would support overriding the bill. She said the counties should not be burdened with the cases. If the bill is not overridden, than the state should reimburse the counties for their additional expenses, she stated. Or the fees for the tickets should be raised said the assemblywoman. Mrs. Gunther expects the bill to be overridden in the senate in late November.
The DA said there was “no easy answer” in the short term to the current problem forced down upon the county by the state. “We’ve gone as far as we can go,” he said. He is dealing with tickets when contacted by lawyers. “We try and be helpful,” but his staff can’t be in court.
There are 36 criminal courts in the county, in addition to County Court, where his staff has to devote time on more serious matters regularly. He has estimated there are 25,000 traffic cases each year in the county.
The bill, he said, “has created a great deal of difficulty and controversy.” And a lot of the impacts will be unknown for a while. “This is not something we are prepared to handle, said Mr. Lungen. His staff of eight assistants has not had the time nor the funds to deal with 25,000 tickets a year. “We’re trying to do the best with what we’ve got,” he concluded.