Suffolk, with more veterans than any county in the state, has become the first in the nation to create a veterans court in its traffic court system to help them avoid excessive fines, suspensions and arrest warrants, which can hurt their return to civilian life.
County Executive Steve Bellone said such a court for Suffolk’s 75,000 veterans is crucial because studies show traffic issues and regaining driver licenses are some of veterans’ top unmet needs as they struggle to find work, housing and “avoid a downward spiral.”
“When we think of traffic court, most people think of it as a temporary inconvenience,” Bellone said. “But it can be a particularly difficult problem for our veterans, who may face costly fines accumulated while they were in service overseas.”
Ken Rosenblum, past head of Touro Law School’s veterans clinic, said he has seen fines go as high as $9,000 for returning vets.
Bellone added that dealing with the court system may be hard for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. Others, he said, may have received military training in evasive truck maneuvers which could affect their driving. “These instincts may have been necessary on the battlefield but may not be helpful when they come home,” Bellone said.
The new veterans court, which will be held once monthly — on the third Friday at 2 p.m. in the H. Lee Dennison Building — will be overseen by an administrative hearing officer who himself is a veteran. It will permit additional conferencing with prosecutors and veteran support services to determine whether military service affected their case.
Allen Mathers, who will serve as veterans hearing officer, said one catalyst for the program was an incident earlier this year in which a veteran, who had served in the Mideast, was charged because a car he owned ran a red light. “His wife asked to speak and said she was guilty of driving through the light, but she was taking her husband to the hospital because he had tried to commit suicide,” Mathers recalled.
He said he walked the couple up to county veteran counselors and delayed sentencing six months so the vet could undergo needed services. When they later returned, Mathers added, “He had completely turned his life around and I dismissed the case.”
Thomas Ronayne, the county veterans director, said, “This is not a pass. There is accountability . . . but it’s done with a degree of empathy and understanding.”