District Administrative Judge C. Randall Hinrichs has barred Suffolk’s traffic court from jailing defendants who don’t have an attorney without a review by a higher court judge, curtailing a practice that defense attorneys have complained violates motorists constitutional rights.
The order released Tuesday directs unrepresented defendants sentenced by a county administrative hearing officer to incarceration or held on bail to appear “forthwith” before a state court judge. If not, the decision by the Suffolk County Traffic and Parking Violations Agency hearing officer would be suspended.
“It is the expectation that the SCTPVA Judicial Hearing Officers would not send a person to jail without an attorney,” court spokeswoman Mary Porter said in an email. “The finalized process will ensure that a person is not held overnight without the benefit of the safeguards provided in this order.”
Porter said the order had been in the works since a March Department of Justice letter to courts, which laid out “basic constitutional principles” related to traffic fines and fees. That includes providing lawyers for those who can’t afford them if litigation is possible.
Paul Margiotta, executive director of the Suffolk County Traffic and Parking Violations Agency, said he expected the order.
By his count, the court has sent two individuals to jail without an attorney this year, although he did not have a full list of people that judges had ordered into custody this year. Neither is currently in jail.
“It’s very, very rare that anybody would be sentenced to jail without an attorney,” he said. Before this order, he believed state law didn’t allow those in traffic court to get attorneys “at taxpayer expense. They’re telling us now, ignore that, and they’re going to get one anyway,” he said.
Margiotta said the jail sentences are used to protect public safety.
Defense attorneys praised Hinrich’s decision.
“It’s about time,” said David Besso, a Bay Shore defense attorney who administers the county’s “18-b” program, which provides attorneys to those who can’t afford it. “They have been putting people in jail for traffic violations since the inception, which was absolutely outrageous. These are vehicle and traffic violations, not crimes.”
The order would not affect defendants who have an attorney, Margiotta said.
Margiotta on Wednesday said 23 people have been remanded to custody in 2016. But records from Suffolk County Sheriff Vincent DeMarco’s office show that 31 people have been remanded in the last seven months.
A May 2015 lawsuit charging that Suffolk County Traffic and Parking Violations Agency unconstitutionally jailed motorists is pending in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn.
The traffic court expects to collect $53.5 million in fines and fees this year and $58 million in 2017, according to county Executive Steve Bellone’s proposed budget. After traffic court expenses, $44 million will be turned over to pay for police costs next year.