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Lawsuit: Suffolk traffic violations agency unfair to poor motorists

A red-light camera at Indian Head Road and

A red-light camera at Indian Head Road and Jericho Turnpike in Commack in April 2016. Credit: Steve Pfost

A new federal lawsuit alleges that Suffolk County's Traffic and Parking Violations Agency unfairly punishes poor motorists by suspending their vehicle registrations when they cannot afford to pay red-light camera fines.

The civil rights lawsuit, filed in U.S. Eastern District Court last week, seeks to stop the county from suspending registrations for unpaid court fees, alleging that doing so violates due process and equal protection laws.

The lawsuit said the registration suspension policy “can trap the poor in an impossible situation” by taking away their transportation to jobs and doctors.

“The resulting cascade of hardship — job loss, mounting interest, convictions for driving with suspended motor vehicle registration, additional costs and fines, and even jail time — keeps low-income people in a perpetual state of disadvantage, a state that people with means can avoid simply by paying in full,” the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit was filed by two county residents, Rosina Ciervo, and Celena McDaniel, who say they rely on state disability payments, food stamps and Medicaid.

Ciervo, 62, and McDaniel, 39, said they both received hearing notices on registration suspensions without previously knowing about any red-light camera violations. Ciervo’s car had 25 citations, with fines totaling $3,165, and McDaniel had 43, with fines totaling $4,585, according to the lawsuit.

The agency's hearing officer Allen S. Mathers denied them opportunities to present evidence of their inability to pay before suspending their registrations, denying them due process, according to the lawsuit. The plaintiffs said there was no alternative option to paying fines, such as doing community service.

The traffic agency does not have the resources to verify that certain drivers cannot afford to pay fines and can only get the state Department of Motor Vehicles to suspend vehicle registrations after 23 unpaid tickets, agency director Paul Margiotta told legislators during a presentation in May. Margiotta said residents can work with the agency to postpone hearings if they are unable to pay fines at that time and noted the county extended an amnesty program twice. 

The county was owed $53 million in red-light camera fines, Margiotta said. 

Jason Elan, spokesman for County Executive Steve Bellone, said, “This is yet another frivolous lawsuit filed by a local attorney looking to make a name for himself.”

The plaintiffs' attorney, Scott Lockwood, was not available for comment Monday afternoon.

Other lawsuits have challenged the red-light camera program. A federal lawsuit that alleged the agency was unconstitutionally jailing motorists and refusing to grant plea deals was dismissed in 2017. Another case filed in Suffolk County Supreme Court seeking to strike down the $30 administrative fee on red-light camera fines is pending.

Ciervo and McDaniel filed their lawsuit on July 15, a day before a public hearing on the program drew three dozen people to call on the Suffolk Legislature to let the program expire. 

Another program to recoup unpaid tickets by booting and towing vehicles is expected to launch by the end of August, officials have said. Several legislators questioned whether the program could disproportionately impact poor people during the May presentation.

“Are we further penalizing people who simply can’t afford to pay,” Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Copiague) said at the May presentation. 

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