More than three dozen drivers have been sent to jail on traffic tickets in Suffolk County under new authority the county began to invoke two years ago.
The jailings, many for driving without a license, represent a departure from decades of practice, when the state Department of Motor Vehicles handled ticketing for the county. The DMV has no authority to jail traffic violators.
Since the Suffolk Traffic and Parking Violations Agency began operating in April 2013, hearing officers have sent at least 39 people to jail, under sentences or because they couldn't post bail, Suffolk sheriff's department records show.
This year alone, 16 people have been sentenced for traffic offenses to terms ranging from 3 to 60 days. Other defendants have been ordered held on bail of $400 to $3,000.
Backers say the policy boosts safety by getting unlicensed drivers off the roads. They say hearing officers order jail for defendants only in a small number of cases -- so far, Suffolk's traffic agency has handled more than 478,000 traffic tickets -- and that those violators typically have been in court for multiple prior infractions.
Critics say the practice disproportionately affects immigrants living here illegally, who in New York can't get driver's licenses. They also note the cost to taxpayers: an average of $300 a day to house an inmate at a time when the county is trying to reduce the jail population, particularly low-level nonviolent offenders, to avoid state mandates to build more jail space to relieve overcrowding.
Newsday requested information about the jailing of traffic offenders after a federal lawsuit filed in May accused the Suffolk traffic agency of jailing motorists unconstitutionally. Among the accusations in the suit, filed by Huntington attorney Christopher Cassar, was that the agency discriminates against Hispanics.
Suffolk cracks down
Jailings on traffic violations began shortly after Suffolk opened its Traffic and Parking Violations Agency, in an effort to retain revenue from traffic fines that previously had gone to the DMV. The DMV still administers ticketing in New York City and Rochester.
Suffolk's traffic agency refused to release data on those jailed for traffic violations.
Nassau, which has had a traffic agency since the 1990s, provided only limited information.
Clerks at town justice courts in Riverhead, Southampton, Southold, East Hampton and Shelter Island, which handle their own traffic ticketing, said they had never heard of anyone sent to jail on a traffic violation. "Not one of the four judges that have disposed of a violation this year have imposed a sentence with jail time," said Southampton Justice Court clerk DeBorah Renee' Brathwaite.
"I think it's a high number, considering its predecessor never remanded one person to the jail for a traffic violation," Suffolk County Sheriff Vincent DeMarco said of the difference between the state and county practices in Suffolk.
Defense attorney Robert Mercaldi, who practices in Suffolk traffic court, said most cases that result in jail time involve repeat traffic offenders who have been warned.
"These are people who don't have a Social Security card and can't get a license and are trying to get to work. The court has taken a hard position that they're not going to let repeat offenders drive," Mercaldi said. "We're really not seeing it anywhere else to this magnitude."
Suffolk sheriff's records identify 22 of the 39 traffic violators jailed since July 2013 as Hispanic, five as black, one as Asian and one as white. Of the 10 other violators whose race was not identified, seven have Hispanic surnames.
One Hispanic man was taken into custody at the jail June 19 by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement upon completion of his sentence and is in deportation proceedings.
The Nassau County Traffic and Parking Violations Authority in 2014 sentenced three people to jail for traffic violations and ordered bail for 11 others, said the court's executive director, Judge John G. Marks. Most cases involved drivers without a license, but Marks declined to release more information.
"The judge is stuck between a rock and hard place. You want to stop people from driving without a license, and how do you do it?" Marks said.
Paul Margiotta, executive director of Suffolk's traffic agency, said those sent to jail represent a small portion of motorists cited for driving without a license and all had come before the court multiple times. "To get into this position, you really have to work hard," he said.
While there is no written policy covering when to send a traffic defendant to jail, hearing officers warn drivers verbally at prior appearances before taking that step, Margiotta said.
Margiotta, who was appointed by Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, said licensing is fundamental to traffic safety.
"The court feels responsible to protect the public from inexperienced, unlicensed drivers," Margiotta said.
He cited two traffic cases involving jail sentences -- one in which an unlicensed driver drove at speeds of 140 mph and another involving an unlicensed driver with two unrestrained children in his car.
Of the 39 defendants jailed in Suffolk, nine were charged solely with driving without a license. Ten others faced charges of driving without a license as well as an equipment violation, such as inadequate taillights. Thirteen had no license and also were charged with moving violations such as speeding or driving with an unrestrained child, while seven were charged only with moving violations.
Sheriff's records did not include prior case histories of the defendants.
'A culture of fear'
Peter Markowitz, a professor at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in Manhattan and director of its immigration clinic, said local law enforcement sometimes has used low-level charges such as driving without a license as a form of immigration enforcement.
Most major municipalities nationwide have moved away from such policies, he said.
"It creates a culture of fear between local law enforcement and immigrant communities," he said. "You've seen a real pushback from many communities, including Suffolk, intended to disentangle local law enforcement from immigration enforcement."
Ten states and the District of Columbia issue driver's licenses regardless of immigration status, according to the National Immigration Law Center, a nonprofit advocacy group. Laws in those states were spurred by problems that immigrants here illegally faced while driving, said Melissa Keaney, staff attorney with the Los Angeles-based group.
Corey Stoughton, senior supervising attorney with the New York Civil Liberties Union, said she was "shocked" that, in Suffolk, "judges would go out to the furthest extreme of their authority to punish what amounts to a traffic violation -- and, two, that they're doing it in a way that appears to have a disproportionate effect on a particular community."
In 2009, the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. attorney's office launched an investigation into the Suffolk police department following crackdowns on day laborers and immigrant housing that had prompted claims of bias.
Bellone in January 2014 signed a settlement with the federal government that ensured more police training.
Bellone said he did not know about the jailings on traffic tickets, and that he was unaware of complaints about the traffic court. However, "I think generally people would complain. Nobody likes to pay traffic fines," Bellone said.
Suffolk's traffic court has become a major revenue source. In 2014, its first full year in operation, it collected $47.8 million in fees and fines for traffic and parking tickets and had $11 million in expenses.
The court sent its first defendant to jail on July 16, 2013, when a hearing officer ordered Juan Pena, 26, of Brentwood, held on $1,000 cash bail on one count of driving without a license. Records do not detail how long Pena spent in jail, or the disposition of his case.
Pena, who could not be reached for comment, previously had pleaded guilty to aggravated unlicensed operation of a vehicle and was fined $250, District Court records show. He also had a misdemeanor conviction in 2012 for illegal racing, according to court records, and a misdemeanor conviction for driving without a license in 2009.
In 2007, Pena was convicted of misdemeanor endangering the welfare of a child, and sentenced to 30 days in jail.
Jailed, facing deportation
The most recent jailing occurred June 15, when Efrain Aguilar Aleman, 46, a Brentwood construction worker, pleaded guilty to three violations of driving without a license, having an improperly restrained child, tailgating and parking illegally on the side of a highway.
Judicial Hearing Officer Paul Senzer sentenced Aleman to 10 days in jail on the license charges. His fines totaled $1,170.
Aleman completed his sentence on June 19. He was immediately taken into custody inside the jail by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials for possible deportation, said Norley Castañeda, his attorney, whose account was confirmed by the sheriff's office.
Lou Martinez, an ICE spokesman in Manhattan, said Aleman was arrested on an "outstanding removal order," and that Aleman had felony convictions for cocaine possession in 1989 and grand theft in 1990.
"As a felon, Aleman is an ICE priority for removal," and is in removal proceedings, said Martinez, who did not say how the agency knew Aleman was at the jail.
Castañeda said she had never heard of a defendant jailed on a traffic ticket and then detained for possible deportation. She said she was rethinking whether to represent clients at the traffic agency.
"If they could end up going to immigration with the possibility of being deported -- that's something I won't do again," Castañeda said of her clients.
Walter Barrientos, Long Island coordinator for the immigrant advocacy group Make the Road New York, called the jailings "deeply disturbing. . . . People raising kids on Long Island are being told you can't drive to work or drive your kids to school, in a place where driving is a necessity of life."
Legis. Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore), a co-sponsor of the original bills that created the Suffolk traffic court, said: "If people are a menace to the roads and to the public, they need to know there are consequences to breaking the law in such an egregious fashion. That said, if the TPVA [Traffic and Parking Violations Agency] is putting people in jail for minor infractions -- that's obviously a concern."