December 5, 2021

Traffic diversion program stalls out

S.N. Briere/staff reporter

Cortland City Police Officer Joseph Peters pulls over a man on Main Street for failing to yield the right of way and for having an obstructed license plate in October, both traffic infractions. File photo from October 2019.

Starting Jan. 1, Cortland County District Attorney Patrick Perfetti has a few options on how to handle 40,000 traffic tickets a year in light of a new state law.

He can:

  • Hire five people to represent the county in municipal courts — costing money his office doesn’t have.
  • Not staff the municipal court sessions — and hope offending drivers don’t show up to contest the ticket.
  • Try to divert those cases to another enforcement mechanism — the plan for which will not happen in time to start the year after negotiations between Perfetti and other county officials stalled.
  • Try to find another solution like seeing if municipal attorneys will handle the cases.

“I have a meeting with law enforcement next week and we’ll figure out how to handle it,” Perfetti said Tuesday before a meeting of the county legislature’s Judiciary and Public Safety Committee.

He told legislators during the committee meeting that they will not be invited to the meeting.

A new state law going into effect Jan. 1 requires the District Attorney’s Office to provide discovery — evidence — in every single traffic case, something that wasn’t done before. In Cortland County, that would require hiring five people, which are not in the county’s 2020 budget.

Of the fines collected, 53% goes to the state, 42% goes to the town court and 5% goes to the county.

Under a program Perfetti suggested earlier this year, none would go to the state.

The county could keep it all, or share it with municipalities.

The program would give drivers a choice: face the ticket and the state- imposed fine — and points on their license — or go through the program, pay a minimum $200 fee and take a six-hour safety course.

A study of just the tickets given in Cortlandville showed that a revenue of around $300,000 a year could be generated, but a dispute in November over who would handle the revenue stalled the creation of the program.

Three resolutions — a law establishing the program, a resolution creating a fee schedule and a resolution to hire a program administrator — passed the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee in November. However, the law gave the Legislature control of the revenue, to which Perfetti disagreed.

“I can’t be selling my discretionary authority to generate money for the county legislature. That’s why the money has to stay under the auspices of the District Attorney’s Office,” Perfetti had said.

He said it’s an “ethical prohibition.”

“It’s not designed to be a taxing gimmick to raise money for the county coffers,” he said, noting it cannot go into the general fund and must be narrowly scoped to specific things.

He said the revenue must be used to fund criminal justice measures like creating positions within his office or the sheriff’s office.

“If this program is going to be created it has to be created the correct way,” Perfetti said.

Legislators asked County Attorney Karen Howe to try to resolve the issue, so the program could move forward in December.

“As enjoyable as a meeting with Ms. Howe is, she’s not in power to resolve the issue on behalf of the legislature, so there’s been no resolution,” Perfetti said at the committee meeting.

“When is it going to be resolved?” asked Legislator George Wagner (R-Marathon, Lapeer).

Committee Chairman Michael Barylski (D-Cortlandville) said the resolutions could not be brought up at the Dec. 19 legislature meeting because a local law requires notice in the local newspaper and a public hearing. Notices for public hearings must be in the local newspaper for five days prior to the meeting, according to the state Division of Local Government Services.

“The difficulty would be in terms of not only finding resolution, but satisfying those public noticing requirements prior to session next Thursday night,” he said. “If you want to have more discussion of it, this group did pass the three resolutions and we could move them forward to the floor, if that’s what the legislature wanted to do.”

However, Barylski said even if they passed the legislature, Perfetti has already indicated he would not implement the program, without having control of the revenue.

Howe said discussions on the program will continue in 2020.

Perfetti said until the language changes to give him control of the revenue, the program is dead.