Suffolk’s dismissal of $2 million worth of tickets drew criticism from the state lawmaker who sponsored the program. NewsdayTV's Shari Einhorn reports.  Credit: Photo Credit:Steven Pfost; John Paraskevas; A.J. Singh

This story was reported by Michael Gormley, Mark Harrington and Sandra Peddie. It was written by Gormley.

ALBANY — Thousands of school bus-camera tickets issued statewide were not invalidated by an appellate court ruling in favor of a driver that had challenged the process, state and legal authorities said, but Suffolk officials have dismissed the vast majority of contested tickets in their county anyway.

The September court ruling prompted the Suffolk County Traffic and Parking Violations Agency to suspend hearings for contested tickets. The county since has dismissed nearly 90% of the 9,000 contested tickets for allegedly passing a stopped school bus — at a loss of $2 million in potential revenue.

Republican County Executive Edward P. Romaine's office is reviewing Suffolk's bus-camera program, which is operated under a contract by  Virginia-based BusPatrol America.

“The mission of this program is simple,” Romaine said in a statement. “To protect our children, period. I do not believe someone who was wrongly ticketed should pay a fine.”

However, the state camera law's sponsor bristled at Suffolk's ticket dismissals.

“It seems to me that Suffolk County is the only county that has a problem,” said Assembly Transportation Committee Chairman William Magnarelli (D-Syracuse), the law’s sponsor. “They don’t get to decide which laws they will follow and which ones they won’t. We’re trying to protect kids.

“The law is not going away,” he added.

The 2019 state law allowed counties and local governments to buy school-bus cameras linked to a “stop arm” that extends from the driver’s side of a bus when it stops for students. The camera on the bus then is triggered by a motion sensor to capture any vehicles passing the stopped bus. Six other states had similar programs when New York enacted its camera program in 2019.

However, a state appellate court ruled in favor of a driver who challenged a ticket he received in Suffolk. The driver argued the video recording was insufficient evidence to prove he passed a stopped bus under the law the way it was written, and the court agreed. That ruling prompted the Legislature and Gov. Kathy Hochul in April to amend, but not replace, the law to clarify provisions.

“The amendment to the law itself would not invalidate tickets that were issued previously,” said Vincent Bonventre, a professor at Albany Law School.

However, future lawsuits could still challenge the measure, according to the legal experts who spoke to Newsday.

School bus cameras are a lucrative program for the company and the county. For each $250 initial fine, the county gets 55% of the revenue and BusPatrol gets 45%, according to the county’s 2023 contract with the company.

BusPatrol has spent $1.6 million since 2019 lobbying lawmakers and officials, including hiring a former state senator from Long Island who pitched the plan to Hochul. No one has been accused of wrongdoing.

Newsday has reported that several former Suffolk officials now occupy top jobs at BusPatrol, including its president, Justin Meyers, and executive vice president, Steve Randazzo. Meyers was a top spokesman for former County Executive Steve Bellone, a Democrat, and chief of staff to former Suffolk District Attorney Tim Sini, who is outside counsel to BusPatrol. Randazzo was a former assistant county executive under Bellone who brought the bus-camera program to the county legislature.

Newsday also reported that top officials in the Bellone administration signed off on changes to BusPatrol’s contract with the county, sharply limiting prior contractual rights to terminate without cause, including if courts find bus-camera results “inadmissible as evidence.” Legis. Anthony Piccirillo (R-Holtsville), chairman of the Suffolk Legislature's committee on government operations, has called for a legal review of the changes and was awaiting a response from the county attorney.

Under Romaine, Suffolk delayed action on more than 9,000 contested tickets issued between the court decision in September and the amendment to the law in April. Now, fewer than 1,000 tickets are still being reviewed.

The backlog of unaddressed tickets had accumulated under the Bellone administration since the appellate court ruling in September, Suffolk officials said.

“When this [Romaine] administration took office, there were more than 9,000 [ticketed drivers] who had requested hearings, but no hearings were scheduled,” Romaine spokesman Michael Martino said. “They had not been addressed.”

Gary Lewi, a spokesman for BusPatrol, said, “Like every municipality that has retained this student safety program — Suffolk County has the authority to dismiss or pursue video documented violations.”

Suffolk’s scrutiny also comes amid criticism of the bus-camera ticketing system itself, including whether drivers across four-lane roadways are fairly ticketed under the program. One possible change to Suffolk’s program could be to narrow the electronic “geofence” of the system in a way that would reduce the field covered by the bus cameras, which now extends fully over multiple-lane roadways with medians, Martino said.

In cases dismissed by Suffolk, drivers often argued they were across a median from the school bus that stopped at a four-lane, divided highway and were no threat to children entering and leaving the school buses, the county said. Drivers also argued they risked being rear-ended by other cars if they stopped for a stopped school bus across a median.

A Newsday review of the county’s bus-camera report for 2023 found the highest concentration of tickets issued by the system are on wider, busier Suffolk roadways, many of which are four lanes with higher speed limits. The top producer was a section of Deer Park Avenue in Dix Hills, with 740 tickets last year, resulting in at least $185,000 in fines. A location on Middle Country Road in Coram produced 620 tickets, or $155,000 in fines, for the year.

However, the vast majority of ticket locations, some 8,658 stops, issued just a single ticket for the entire year, many on slower, single-lane roads. Only 132 locations produced 100 or more tickets.

Magnarelli said the system saves lives and applies equally to two- and four-lane highways, even with medians.

He said Suffolk officials and Romaine “are absolutely wrong on this issue. He’s putting children’s lives in jeopardy.”

Romaine spokesman Martino countered that the county’s aim is to make sure tickets are issued lawfully. In recent weeks, Suffolk has added a new layer of review to individual bus-camera tickets, he said.

“Under the prior administration, only two reviews were performed,” after a ticket was issued: one by BusPatrol and another by the county, Martino said. Only if a ticket was appealed was another review performed by Suffolk’s traffic court, he said.

Under the new county system, Martino said, a supervisor will review a proposed ticket after BusPatrol and the county’s Traffic and Parking Violations agency. If a ticket is contested, it is reviewed by an agency lawyer.

Suffolk County Attorney Christopher Clayton stressed the county is not dismissing tickets for reasons other than to comply with the legal standard, which has changed since the appellate division ruling.

“We had one legal construct for one period of time [following the appellate ruling] and we abided by that,” Clayton said. “We have a new legal construct,” after passage of the state law that made new assumptions about evidence gathered from bus cameras. “I think they are smart changes. And we’re going to adapt to those as quickly as we can. We’ll be reviewing everything through the lens of the new legislation.”

Meanwhile, a class-action civil suit is challenging the validity of the 2019 state law before it was amended in April, and legal experts say the outcome is uncertain and a court will have to determine if the law was “hopelessly unclear” before it was amended in April.

Bonventre, of Albany Law School, said any court considering whether to strike down the 2019 law would have to determine it was “fundamentally unfair” or “hopelessly unclear.”

“In other words,” Bonventre said, “would a reasonable law-abiding driver have understood that they were violating the terms of the law? That’s the question.”

The April amendment sought to clarify the law by legally defining a school bus and stating that a stopped school bus is presumed to be picking up or dropping off students.

The amendment made certain assertions that the prosecution no longer must prove to make a case that a car passed a stopped school bus, said Jonathan D. Cohn, a defense attorney in Albany and a former prosecutor who reviewed the court decision for Newsday.

The amendment now means prosecutors no longer have to prove basic elements such as whether the vehicle was a school bus, if it was stopped and that the stop arm was being used, all of which is now legally assumed by the photographic image, Cohn said.

“It was quite a burden for prosecution,” he said.

Cohn said he is concerned about making exceptions or interpretations to the law, such as not requiring cars in a four-lane highway across the median to stop for a stopped bus.

“I think it’s just easiest to apply it in one certain fashion without delineating between lanes of travel,” Cohn said. “You want the law as clear as possible … because when you start going into a gray area, you create confusion.

“The main intent,” he said, “is the safety of children.”

The original bill’s author defended it.

“This is a good law because you can’t have a police officer on the scene every time a car passes a school bus,” Magnarelli said. “This was becoming rampant and it had to be stopped.”

With Maura McDermott

ALBANY — Thousands of school bus-camera tickets issued statewide were not invalidated by an appellate court ruling in favor of a driver that had challenged the process, state and legal authorities said, but Suffolk officials have dismissed the vast majority of contested tickets in their county anyway.

The September court ruling prompted the Suffolk County Traffic and Parking Violations Agency to suspend hearings for contested tickets. The county since has dismissed nearly 90% of the 9,000 contested tickets for allegedly passing a stopped school bus — at a loss of $2 million in potential revenue.

Republican County Executive Edward P. Romaine's office is reviewing Suffolk's bus-camera program, which is operated under a contract by  Virginia-based BusPatrol America.

“The mission of this program is simple,” Romaine said in a statement. “To protect our children, period. I do not believe someone who was wrongly ticketed should pay a fine.”

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Thousands of school bus-camera tickets issued statewide were not invalidated by an appellate court ruling in favor of a driver that had challenged the process, state and legal authorities said.
  • The court ruling prompted Suffolk County to suspend hearings for contested tickets. The county since has dismissed nearly 90% of the 9,000 contested tickets.
  • Suffolk officials are reviewing the bus-camera program, but the law's chief sponsor in Albany says it "is not going away.”

However, the state camera law's sponsor bristled at Suffolk's ticket dismissals.

“It seems to me that Suffolk County is the only county that has a problem,” said Assembly Transportation Committee Chairman William Magnarelli (D-Syracuse), the law’s sponsor. “They don’t get to decide which laws they will follow and which ones they won’t. We’re trying to protect kids.

“The law is not going away,” he added.

The 2019 state law allowed counties and local governments to buy school-bus cameras linked to a “stop arm” that extends from the driver’s side of a bus when it stops for students. The camera on the bus then is triggered by a motion sensor to capture any vehicles passing the stopped bus. Six other states had similar programs when New York enacted its camera program in 2019.

However, a state appellate court ruled in favor of a driver who challenged a ticket he received in Suffolk. The driver argued the video recording was insufficient evidence to prove he passed a stopped bus under the law the way it was written, and the court agreed. That ruling prompted the Legislature and Gov. Kathy Hochul in April to amend, but not replace, the law to clarify provisions.

“The amendment to the law itself would not invalidate tickets that were issued previously,” said Vincent Bonventre, a professor at Albany Law School.

However, future lawsuits could still challenge the measure, according to the legal experts who spoke to Newsday.

School bus cameras are a lucrative program for the company and the county. For each $250 initial fine, the county gets 55% of the revenue and BusPatrol gets 45%, according to the county’s 2023 contract with the company.

BusPatrol has spent $1.6 million since 2019 lobbying lawmakers and officials, including hiring a former state senator from Long Island who pitched the plan to Hochul. No one has been accused of wrongdoing.

Newsday has reported that several former Suffolk officials now occupy top jobs at BusPatrol, including its president, Justin Meyers, and executive vice president, Steve Randazzo. Meyers was a top spokesman for former County Executive Steve Bellone, a Democrat, and chief of staff to former Suffolk District Attorney Tim Sini, who is outside counsel to BusPatrol. Randazzo was a former assistant county executive under Bellone who brought the bus-camera program to the county legislature.

Newsday also reported that top officials in the Bellone administration signed off on changes to BusPatrol’s contract with the county, sharply limiting prior contractual rights to terminate without cause, including if courts find bus-camera results “inadmissible as evidence.” Legis. Anthony Piccirillo (R-Holtsville), chairman of the Suffolk Legislature's committee on government operations, has called for a legal review of the changes and was awaiting a response from the county attorney.

What Suffolk is doing

Under Romaine, Suffolk delayed action on more than 9,000 contested tickets issued between the court decision in September and the amendment to the law in April. Now, fewer than 1,000 tickets are still being reviewed.

The backlog of unaddressed tickets had accumulated under the Bellone administration since the appellate court ruling in September, Suffolk officials said.

“When this [Romaine] administration took office, there were more than 9,000 [ticketed drivers] who had requested hearings, but no hearings were scheduled,” Romaine spokesman Michael Martino said. “They had not been addressed.”

Gary Lewi, a spokesman for BusPatrol, said, “Like every municipality that has retained this student safety program — Suffolk County has the authority to dismiss or pursue video documented violations.”

Suffolk’s scrutiny also comes amid criticism of the bus-camera ticketing system itself, including whether drivers across four-lane roadways are fairly ticketed under the program. One possible change to Suffolk’s program could be to narrow the electronic “geofence” of the system in a way that would reduce the field covered by the bus cameras, which now extends fully over multiple-lane roadways with medians, Martino said.

In cases dismissed by Suffolk, drivers often argued they were across a median from the school bus that stopped at a four-lane, divided highway and were no threat to children entering and leaving the school buses, the county said. Drivers also argued they risked being rear-ended by other cars if they stopped for a stopped school bus across a median.

A Newsday review of the county’s bus-camera report for 2023 found the highest concentration of tickets issued by the system are on wider, busier Suffolk roadways, many of which are four lanes with higher speed limits. The top producer was a section of Deer Park Avenue in Dix Hills, with 740 tickets last year, resulting in at least $185,000 in fines. A location on Middle Country Road in Coram produced 620 tickets, or $155,000 in fines, for the year.

However, the vast majority of ticket locations, some 8,658 stops, issued just a single ticket for the entire year, many on slower, single-lane roads. Only 132 locations produced 100 or more tickets.

Magnarelli said the system saves lives and applies equally to two- and four-lane highways, even with medians.

He said Suffolk officials and Romaine “are absolutely wrong on this issue. He’s putting children’s lives in jeopardy.”

Romaine spokesman Martino countered that the county’s aim is to make sure tickets are issued lawfully. In recent weeks, Suffolk has added a new layer of review to individual bus-camera tickets, he said.

“Under the prior administration, only two reviews were performed,” after a ticket was issued: one by BusPatrol and another by the county, Martino said. Only if a ticket was appealed was another review performed by Suffolk’s traffic court, he said.

Under the new county system, Martino said, a supervisor will review a proposed ticket after BusPatrol and the county’s Traffic and Parking Violations agency. If a ticket is contested, it is reviewed by an agency lawyer.

Suffolk County Attorney Christopher Clayton stressed the county is not dismissing tickets for reasons other than to comply with the legal standard, which has changed since the appellate division ruling.

“We had one legal construct for one period of time [following the appellate ruling] and we abided by that,” Clayton said. “We have a new legal construct,” after passage of the state law that made new assumptions about evidence gathered from bus cameras. “I think they are smart changes. And we’re going to adapt to those as quickly as we can. We’ll be reviewing everything through the lens of the new legislation.”

Legal arguments

Meanwhile, a class-action civil suit is challenging the validity of the 2019 state law before it was amended in April, and legal experts say the outcome is uncertain and a court will have to determine if the law was “hopelessly unclear” before it was amended in April.

Bonventre, of Albany Law School, said any court considering whether to strike down the 2019 law would have to determine it was “fundamentally unfair” or “hopelessly unclear.”

“In other words,” Bonventre said, “would a reasonable law-abiding driver have understood that they were violating the terms of the law? That’s the question.”

The April amendment sought to clarify the law by legally defining a school bus and stating that a stopped school bus is presumed to be picking up or dropping off students.

The amendment made certain assertions that the prosecution no longer must prove to make a case that a car passed a stopped school bus, said Jonathan D. Cohn, a defense attorney in Albany and a former prosecutor who reviewed the court decision for Newsday.

The amendment now means prosecutors no longer have to prove basic elements such as whether the vehicle was a school bus, if it was stopped and that the stop arm was being used, all of which is now legally assumed by the photographic image, Cohn said.

“It was quite a burden for prosecution,” he said.

Cohn said he is concerned about making exceptions or interpretations to the law, such as not requiring cars in a four-lane highway across the median to stop for a stopped bus.

“I think it’s just easiest to apply it in one certain fashion without delineating between lanes of travel,” Cohn said. “You want the law as clear as possible … because when you start going into a gray area, you create confusion.

“The main intent,” he said, “is the safety of children.”

The original bill’s author defended it.

“This is a good law because you can’t have a police officer on the scene every time a car passes a school bus,” Magnarelli said. “This was becoming rampant and it had to be stopped.”

With Maura McDermott

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