Traffic court no-shows

Our view: Automatic hearing dates waste officers' time and taxpayer dollars

March 03, 2010

With a minimal imposition on the public, Maryland police departments could collectively save millions of dollars in overtime - and make streets safer - by keeping officers on patrol instead of wasting their time at phantom traffic court hearings.

Why is there any hesitation whatsoever among lawmakers to do this?

Here is all that's required: When drivers receive a traffic citation for a relatively minor violation (such as speeding or any other infraction for which the penalty does not include jail time), they would have to request a trial date if they want to contest it in District Court.

Under current law, motorists who receive tickets but do not pay their fines right away are assigned a court date automatically. This can be a convenience for defendants, but often it amounts to little more than a nuisance for police and the judicial system.

Because some defendants simply never got around to mailing in the fine (and an unwanted hearing date is set, nevertheless), the officer who wrote the ticket is left to cool his or her heels in court. It's not hard to appreciate the inefficiency of this. Just hang around traffic court and watch judges call no-show cases like Ferris Bueller's economics teacher taking attendance.

For individual police officers, it may amount to only an hour or two of stand-around time, but those hours add up. In Montgomery County, changing traffic court hearings from automatic to by request only would save an estimated $3.5 million. That's the equivalent of 35 percent of the county police department's overtime budget.

Perhaps there was a day when state and local governments could afford this indulgence, but that time is long past. Do a defendant's rights truly suffer if he or she has to check off a box or return a form? Enough to justify millions of dollars in added costs?

The obvious answer is no - and the vast majority of states don't make traffic hearings automatic, as Maryland does. Yet last year, the General Assembly failed to approve needed cost-saving reforms - even as the state was facing a recession and budget crisis.

Those budget problems haven't gone away, but even if the state weren't in serious financial straits, it would be foolish to retain the current system. Motorists are far better off when police spend their hours keeping roads safe, not sitting around courtrooms.

The Maryland Judicial Conference has voiced one objection worth noting. The judiciary is in the midst of replacing a computer system to manage cases, and officials fear that changing the system now would divert attention from that task and add cost.

But a legislative analysis suggests that's not so. The new computer system isn't expected to be online until 2015, giving the judiciary more than enough time to rewrite software and reprint traffic tickets as needed.

Readers respond
There is one very important reason for automatic traffic court dates. Maryland is one of a few states that does not require an issuing police officer to swear under oath the offense in question occurred.

In most states, the signature block for a police officer on a ticket reads something to the effect of "I solemnly swear, under penalty of perjury, that the person named on the citation committed the named offense..." Essentially, a ticket becomes the police officer's affidavit.

However, Maryland police unions have repeatedly lobbied against requiring police officers to testify under oath unless absolutely necessary.

I submit that, if traffic tickets in Maryland were to be issued under the sworn oath of a police officer, recipients could decline trials with greater confidence.

Josh

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