The two cities in Chautauqua County are assisting overworked district attorney staff by taking over the prosecution of traffic tickets.
On April 1, 2019, New York state passed sweeping criminal justice reform legislation, including discovery reform, requiring prosecutors to disclose their evidence to the defense earlier in case proceedings. The discovery law changes went into effect on Jan. 1, 2020. Some examples include providing the defense supporting depositions, 911 recordings, body camera footage, hospital records, listing seized property, and for prosecutors to outline their theory of a case.
During an interview with The Post-Journal/OBSERVER, county District Attorney Jason Schmidt noted these changes take up much more time than in the past. Because of this, his office is having a hard time finding the time to prosecute traffic tickets.
Schmidt was unable to give an accurate count of how many tickets his office handles annually but guessed it was in the “tens of thousands.” Generally when a ticket is issued, the person who received the ticket can either plead guilty and pay the necessary fine or seek to plea the ticket down.
His office has always permitted plea bargaining of tickets. However, another change is that the state Court Administration has made a determination that court personnel cannot get involved in any fashion with plea bargaining policy.
Schmidt noted that it used to be the case that when a prosecutor was at a local court on criminal matters, that prosecutor would be given a stack of traffic tickets, be asked to review those and when appropriate make plea reduction offers. The court would then convey that information to a person with a traffic ticket during traffic court.
“The Office of Court Administration in reviewing this felt that the courts were in effect, acting as an agent of the prosecutor’s office in conveying those offers,” Schmidt said. “They were mandated to step aside and not be part of that plea bargaining process, even to the extent of conveying the offers that the prosecutors were making.”
Schmidt said between the new requirements in the discovery laws and courts no longer being permitted to provide a prosecutor’s offer to a ticketed individual, they were becoming overwhelmed. So they sought help from local municipalities. The cities of Jamestown and Dunkirk were able to respond.
Jamestown has a corporate council while Dunkirk has its own attorney. “In those situations we were able to make contact with those municipalities and explain the difficulties that we were encountering and they eventually agreed to allow their attorney offices to prosecute the traffic matters and we in turn delegated that responsibility to them,” Schmidt said.
Jamestown began prosecuting traffic tickets last year, while Dunkirk has just authorized its attorney to handle them.
Schmidt noted that the county does not pay the cities for those services. “Really, we have been performing that function as a courtesy in many respects, for the local municipalities,” he said.
The advantage for Jamestown and now Dunkirk, Schmidt said, is that they have a good handle on traffic tickets that they may want to reduce down and what the parameters are. “They can also have some degree of controlling where the revenue goes because depending on how a ticket is written and under what charge there may ultimately be a conviction, the revenue from the fine monies may be kept locally as opposed to a certain share that goes go Albany,” he added.
Schmidt believes city attorneys are in a good position to handle traffic tickets because they already prosecute local law violations as well as zoning violations. “In many respects some of these types of traffic tickets are akin to that type of violations, in that they’re not criminal in nature,” he said.
However, smaller municipalities that don’t have an attorney on the payroll aren’t equipped to prosecute traffic tickets. Because of that, Schmidt’s office has posted on the county website a streamline process of pleading in traffic tickets.
The website reads:
“To be considered for a plea offer reduction you must provide our office with:
¯ a copy of your tickets;
¯ your state’s driver’s abstract; and
¯ your case number that has been assigned by the court.
¯ you may, in addition, provide us with a general description or explanation as to why you deserve a plea offer reduction.
“In order for your case to be resolved promptly, you should provide us with all the necessary information as soon as possible before your court scheduled trial date. If you do not provide us with all the necessary information, you will not be considered for a plea offer reduction.”
Schmidt added that there’s no guarantee a ticket will be pleaded down but this process helps them move traffic tickets through the courts. “The revenue can still come in for the local municipalities, and the cases get adjudicated with fair disposition for community members who receive tickets,” he said.
At this point, Schmidt doesn’t know of any other municipality in the county that has enough legal staff to prosecute tickets. However, if a municipality wanted to take it over, his office wouldn’t be opposed to such a move.
“We would gladly move that responsibility to them,” he said.