October 26, 2021

Lawmakers expected to reconsider ticket program

Photo provided by Aga Dembinska, New York State Police

A state trooper watches traffic along Interstate 81 in Cortland County. A large number of traffic tickets in Cortland County come from stops on the interstate. Legislators are expected to again discuss implementing a traffic ticket diversion program District Attorney Patrick Perfetti created that stalled last year over who would handle the revenue the program generated.

Cortland County legislators are expected in the coming months to reconsider a traffic ticket diversion program that stalled in December following a disagreement with District Attorney Patrick Perfetti.

“The thing that allows for some optimism here is there are five new legislators,” Perfetti said.

He said he met Jan. 23 with Judiciary and Public Safety Committee Chairwoman Sandra Price (D-Harford, Virgil), Vice Chairwoman Kelly Preston (R-Homer), Legislature Chairman Paul Heider (R-Cuyler, Solon, Truxton) and County Administrator Rob Corpora to discuss, among other items, the program. It would dismiss most traffic cases if the offender agrees to a driving safety course and a fee to the municipalities, rather than a state-imposed fine. It could bring the county and communities about $300,000 a year.

“It probably won’t come up this month, but it will be coming up in the near future,” Price said. “I think it’s a wonderful service for the people.”

A new state law that went 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.

The program would help alleviate the need to always do that.

“We’re still handling traffic tickets,” Perfetti said, but that’s only because the courts have not had any series of litigation to further define how this new law should be handled. “We’re proceeding as we have — cautiously.”

If the courts and further litigation require him to begin providing evidence in every traffic ticket case, Perfetti has said he would need to hire at least five more people. But with the program in place and using fines collected from the program, he could pay for at least a program administrator and alleviate the need to gather evidence in every case.

Of the fines collected, 53% goes to the state, 42% goes to the town court and 5% goes to the county. None of that money would go to the state under Perfetti’s program; 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 revenue of around $300,000 a year could be generated.

However, a dispute in November over who would handle the revenue stalled 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. “Ms. Price, I think, understands why the money needs to remain under this authority,” said Perfetti about the Jan. 23 meeting.

Price said she likened Perfetti’s demand to keep the revenue under his auspices to Sheriff Mark Helms and the STOP-DWI funds, which Helms gets from the state and distributes among municipal police agencies to use for driving while intoxicated enforcement.

“I personally don’t see controversy in it,” Price said. I think we have a new legislature, we have a new JPS (Judiciary and Public Safety) Committee … so we’ll just have to give it time for DA Perfetti to work out the kinks and whatever things need to be done ahead of time.”

Perfetti said even if the Legislature OKs the program “it probably couldn’t be in place any sooner than April.”