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Suffolk judge tightens rules for jailing traffic defendants

Superior Criminal Courts judge Randall Hinrichs, at the

Superior Criminal Courts judge Randall Hinrichs, at the Riverhead Criminal Courthouse Wednesday afternoon on March 19, 2014. By James Carbone Credit: James Carbone

Suffolk’s Traffic and Parking Violations Bureau can no longer even contemplate jailing or imposing bail on a traffic defendant without sending the case to a District Court judge, according to a new order from Suffolk Administrative Judge C. Randall Hinrichs.

The order supersedes an earlier one issued last September that required District Court judges to review decisions made by county traffic and parking violation hearing officers for bail or incarceration. It also required the county to provide legal representation to defendants who did not have lawyers.

Aides to Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone and Hinrichs downplayed the significance of the latest order, saying it simply would improve a program that was working well.

“This just makes the process cleaner and improves the execution of the previous plan,” said Mary Porter, a spokeswoman for Hinrichs. “Now, we are being pro-active rather than reactive.”

However, David Besso, executive director of Suffolk’s Assigned Counsel program, said there still was “a continuing problem. It’s outrageous that anyone would go to jail from traffic court.”

Besso said that while Hinrichs “was very patient” with the traffic bureau, he “finally said ‘enough is enough’ … This will fix the problem.”

Under the new order, any prosecutor who is considering recommending jail or bail, or hearing officers who have determined such action may be appropriate, must transfer the case immediately to a District Court judge before any trial, hearing or plea.

Under the earlier order, cases only would be moved after bail or incarceration were decided by the traffic bureau in Hauppauge.

Defendants then would be taken to District Court at the Cohalan court complex in Central Islip. They would be held there until legal representation could be found and their cases reviewed by a District Court judge.

Under Hinrichs’ new order, defendants will receive notices to appear in District Court and will remain free until their cases are heard there.

Karen Kerr, District Court supervising judge, said the change was made in part because the traffic bureau gets some serious cases in which defendants can pose danger to the public.

Kerr said District Court judges are better prepared to deal with such cases and poor defendants can more easily get the legal representation from Legal Aid, who already are in the courthouse.

When the first order was issued, Paul Margiotta, the bureau’s executive director, estimated that 23 people had been remanded to custody in 2016. County sheriff records indicated that 31 people had been remanded in the previous seven months. Since the first order was put in place, only two defendants have been incarcerated, Margiotta said.

A federal lawsuit charging that the traffic bureau with jailing motorists unconstitutionally is pending in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn.

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