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Suffolk lawmakers seek to end fees on not-guilty traffic tickets

The Suffolk County seal.

The Suffolk County seal.

Thomas Brennan entered Suffolk's Traffic & Parking Violations Agency holding both the ticket given to his son for not having insurance and proof of the insurance.

Brennan, of East Northport, got the ticket dismissed -- but was still stuck with a $50 bill.

Despite the outcome, Brennan still had to pay an administrative fee. The new county traffic agency, to a growing number of complaints, collects the added fee of either $30 or $50 on nearly all of the tickets it processes -- even those it dismisses as not guilty.

"It's obvious to anyone that this is just a moneymaker for the county," said Brennan, 55, a retired New York City police officer. "An errant, bogus summons shouldn't be my burden."

Suffolk lawmakers now want to end the practice of charging motorists who disprove or correct the charges against them.

Legis. Rob Calarco (D-Patchogue), who pushed last year for the state to allow Suffolk to start its own traffic agency, said he'll introduce a bill to exempt most dismissed tickets from the administrative fee.

"If you're innocent, you shouldn't have to pay," Calarco said. "I don't think it's fair to individuals in that position."

County Executive Steve Bellone's administration didn't return a request for comment, but a county official has previously defended the practice for some tickets.

To illustrate the problem, Calarco cited the case of a constituent who recently was issued a ticket for a broken taillight.

Under state law, such a ticket can be dismissed if the driver proves the light was fixed within 24 hours. The constituent made the fix and the ticket was thrown out, but she still had to pay $50, Calarco said.

"We didn't realize we didn't grant the bureau the power to waive that fee in these situations," he said. "Now we need to correct the oversight."

Suffolk opened its traffic violations bureau in April, calling it a way to keep local control over the revenue from the fines, which previously went to the state -- and as a way to help close a large budget gap. Officials project it to make $32 million in revenue over its first nine months, compared with just $10.3 million in expenditures.

Bellone's office didn't say how much of that total revenue came from administrative fees, though in the department's 2014 budget request, it said $5 million of the $18 million in projected revenue from this year's red-light camera tickets would be from $30 processing fees.

But speaking to lawmakers at a budget hearing last month, traffic agency director Paul Margiotta said the fees were valid even on dismissed tickets.

"That ticket went to the police station, got entered into the computer, came to us, got entered into the computer, then they mailed something in, and now we've got to send them a letter," Margiotta said last month. "All that money, we feel, should be paid by the people that are doing it and not just the general taxpayer."

Margiotta told legislators that people who could prove they were not guilty of the offense they were ticketed for -- and not just that they fixed the issue later -- didn't have to pay any fees. But Brennan said that wasn't the case for his son.

The 22-year-old was ticketed for not having insurance after an East Northport fender-bender last August, even though he gave his insurance card to the police officer, Brennan said.

After the dismissal, a clerk told Brennan the only way he could appeal the fee was to wait with hundreds of others still disputing their tickets.

"If someone is found not guilty, they had the inconvenience of having to fight the situation -- maybe even taking time off work and losing money," said Legis. William Spencer (D-Centerport), who represents Brennan's district. "To have an administrative fee on top of that is really unfair."

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