Trials for tickets won't be automatic

Starting Jan. 1, burden will be on driver to request day in court

December 31, 2010|By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

For many decades, the drill for traffic stops in Maryland was clear: If you got a ticket, you were assigned a court date, whether you requested one or not.

Starting Jan. 1, that changes.

Motorists who want to contest a ticket will have to ask for a trial date or sentencing hearing as required by legislation passed unanimously in the General Assembly earlier this year. If they don't, they'll just have to pay the fine.

Up to now, according to the Maryland Sheriffs Association, Maryland was the only state in which the recipient of a traffic citation was given an automatic court date. Everywhere else, defendants have to request a trial if they want to contest the charges.

"It was a tremendous waste of officers' time, and there's no other state that does it this way," said Michael Canning, executive director of the Maryland Sheriffs Association.

This year, in the hope of saving millions of dollars spent on police overtime in cases where defendants fail to appear in court, Maryland's sheriffs and police chiefs mounted a concerted lobbying effort to bring the state in line with most others. Legislators agreed and gave the District Court of Maryland until the end of the year to make the necessary changes.

Now the courts say they're ready.

Under the old system, with drivers automatically assigned a trial date, it was not uncommon for defendants to fail to appear for a third of the cases on any day's traffic court docket, despite having received summonses. Last year, according to District Court of Maryland figures, there were 332,000 failures to appear out of 1.2 million traffic charges brought in the state. (Because many cases involve multiple charges against a single driver, that does not equal 332,000 defendants.)

Chief District Judge Ben C. Clyburn said the change could bring significant cuts in the number of drivers who fail to appear at trial.

"We think this is a good idea," he said. "People will now show up."

Canning said the change will let police spend less time in court.

"There's no downside to this," he said. "It doesn't do away with due process. It just more efficiently handles a system that was kind of antiquated."

But Bill Johnson of Glen Burnie, one of several Maryland drivers interviewed Wednesday at the Motor Vehicle Administration in Glen Burnie, said he prefers the old way and thinks the change is unfair.

"I think it would be a big burden as far as people who would not send it or forget," he said.

Other drivers asked about the new process seemed to support the change, saying the shift in burden of responsibility makes sense.

"You're the one who screwed up and got the ticket," said Patricia Flickner of Pasadena. "You've got to go fix it yourself."

Debbie Whittington of Catonsville called the current system "a waste of paper and a waste of time," and predicted that the change would save taxpayers money in the long run.

The types of offenses covered by the new policy include speeding, failure to obey traffic signals, failure to yield the right of way and tailgating — all charges that carry no jail time and that can be resolved by paying a fine by mail.

More serious cases with the potential for jail time, known as "must appear" violations, are not affected by the change because defendants will still be required to show up for trial whether they plan to contest the charges or not. Such charges include drunken driving or operating a vehicle on a suspended license.

A driver who receives a less serious ticket will have 30 days to either pay the fine, request a trial or seek a penalty-only hearing. The notification of the choices will be printed on the new tickets officers will give out as of Jan. 1, and failure to respond can lead to license suspension.

According to the court system, trials are for drivers who want to dispute the facts of the case. For those proceedings, police officers will be summoned to court. At penalty hearings, the driver doesn't contest guilt but gets an opportunity to ask the judge for a break on the penalty. In those cases, the police officers and other witnesses will not have to come to court in order for the defendant to be convicted.

Chief William J. McMahon of the Howard County Police Department said he expects "pretty significant" savings in overtime as well as freeing up officers for patrol duties.

"They will be out in the county doing what they're supposed to be doing," he said. McMahon says the current system takes an especially heavy toll on officers when they are summoned to sit in court all day after working a night shift.

Doug Ward, who spent 27 years as a police officer, said he remembers often having to sit in court all day and never being called to testify.

"Most people who go to court really don't want a trial; they want a break," said Ward, director of the Division of Public Safety Leadership at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education. "As soon as they made sure I was in court, they would plead guilty. It was very frustrating."

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