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Veterans find justice tempered with mercy in Suffolk traffic court

Army veteran Nico Cain, of Coram, speaks to

Army veteran Nico Cain, of Coram, speaks to the judge while at the Suffolk County Veterans Traffic Court in Hauppauge, on Friday, Aug. 18, 2017. Credit: Steve Pfost

Nico Cain had the habit of taking a quick glance, then rolling right on through when he got to “right turn on red” intersections.

It was a trait that earned the Army veteran from Coram more than $700 in red-light camera tickets, which, along with two lane-change violations, put him at risk of license suspension.

But for Cain, driving scared was also a strategy, one he picked up during his days as a Humvee machine-gunner during the Iraq War, when bad things often happened to American soldiers who lingered at intersections.

“You don’t drive in a straight line and are always looking on the ground for roadside bombs,” said Cain, 28, who spent a year in combat, much of it in Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit. “That stays with you. It’s ‘survive or die.’ ”

With motorists like Cain in mind — military veterans who return from service with bad driving habits learned in combat zones — Suffolk County’s first-in-the-nation veterans traffic court has, for the past two months, been tempering justice with understanding.

The special section of the Suffolk court system, which convenes on the third Friday of the month, is especially geared toward helping veterans avoid having their licenses suspended. Veterans advocates say license suspensions can make it especially hard for returning veterans to find jobs, stay employed and otherwise successfully return to civilian life.

“You’ve got the law, and you’ve got equity,” said Judge Allen S. Mathers, who has presided over Suffolk’s veterans traffic court in Hauppauge since it began in July. “Does every one of them deserve a break? No. But lots of them do.”

At an Aug. 18 hearing, Cain was not the only one to whom Mathers meted out a measure of mercy. There was also Arthur Olson. The 48-year-old from Port Jefferson Station admits to having a bit of a lead foot since his time in the Army, when he was a truck driver during the Gulf War invasion of Iraq. “It drives my wife crazy,” he said.

Olson faced a $600 fine plus six points for driving 80 mph on the Northern State Parkway, an infraction that could have put his commercial driver’s license in jeopardy. A conference with a prosecutor reduced his penalty to a $180 fine and no points, and left Olson relieved. “If I don’t have a license, I don’t work,” he said.

Veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have high rates of traffic violations related to speeding and erratic driving, according to Ken Rosenblum, former director of Touro Law School’s veterans clinic. Rosenblum said troops adopt dangerous driving habits — high speeds and bomb-avoiding evasive actions — that they sometimes have difficulty unlearning once they return to suburban roadways.

Battlefield norms — including intense vigilance, the need for evasive driving, and the military reality that lateness can be lethal — can be essential for combat success. But these same qualities can create problems when military personnel return to civilian settings, according to the nonprofit Traffic Resource Center for Judges, which guides state judges and court clerks on issues related to traffic cases.

The organization cited a 2012 study by the AAA, which showed a 13 percent increase in at-fault traffic accidents among former combatants in their first six months back home.

Further, veterans are twice as likely to be involved in traffic fatalities than nonveterans, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, which says auto accidents are the leading cause of death among just-returned veterans. By way of example, veterans have, in many cases, learned not to use seat belts, according to the VA’s National Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention.

Mathers, a veteran who served as a military lawyer, said he tries to balance the desire to give deserving veterans a second chance with the need to enforce traffic safety laws.

Sometimes he insists that defendants make use of VA or other programs that help veterans cope with combat-related anxiety in exchange for traffic ticket dispensation. Uncontrolled anxiety often is a common denominator among veterans with bad driving records.

And he frequently diverts defendants into a county-run, pre-sentencing remedial program to address distracted driving, speeding, texting and other violations.

When a member of the National Guard’s 69th Infantry Regiment showed up with a cellphone violation amid a slew of unpaid tickets, Mathers told her he would defer judgment if she agreed to attend the daylong county traffic safety course, adding, “Don’t be late.”

“I’m doing this because I believe in you,” Mathers said with thespian gruffness. “Don’t let me down.”

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