December 2, 2021

DA puts traffic ticket program in motion

Cortland County District Attorney Patrick Perfetti said he will contract a company to run a traffic ticket diversion program after waiting months for legislators to act on his initial proposal, even though legislators question his authority to enter the contract.

Perfetti announced the idea last August of offering speeders and other traffic offenders the option to pay a minimum $200 fine and take a driver safety course instead of facing a court, court fines and points on their licenses that could increase insurance costs.

He projected, based on a study in Cortlandville, it could keep at least $300,000 a year in the county and away from the state. But negotiations with legislators on instituting the program stalled in November.

“I need to move forward on this for the protection and health and safety of my staff,” Perfetti said Wednesday. “I cannot have my attorney being in constant proximity and meeting with tens of thousands of people.”

Perfetti told legislators Tuesday during a county Judiciary and Public Safety Committee meeting that he was waiting on a contract to be approved by the county attorney’s office so he could sign with Diversion Management OF WHERE? to run a traffic diversion program after Perfetti’s original idea kept failing to pass committee approval.

“I came to this Legislature and the past Legislature to get approval to a local law, I haven’t been able to do that,” he said. “I’m now in the situation where if I don’t do something, I’m being required then to put my staff in direct proximity to about 40,000 motorists a year in the midst of a COVID pandemic. I am not going to do that. It’s a matter of safety for my staff.”

A state law that went into effect Jan. 1 also requires the District Attorney’s Office to provide discovery — evidence — in every single traffic case, something that wasn’t done before. That would have increased the county’s cost to prosecute traffic offenders.

“This will help me do that because this outside vendor will deal with the traffic matters while my staff can then be redirected to dealing with discovery compliance so that we don’t start having cases get dismissed,” Perfetti said.

He said he deals with approximately 40,000 traffic cases a year.

With the program, a $200 fee would be issued unless it was a more egregious traffic violation. The company would take 10% or $20 and $50 would go to the courts. The rest would go into a fund for law enforcement purposes, which was part of the hurdle in the original program it would remain under Perfetti’s control, not in the general fund.

But the latest plan raised eyebrows at both the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee and Budget and Finance Committee because many legislators believe a resolution authorizing Perfetti to enter into a contract would need to come before the Legislature.

Perfetti said that’s not the case.

“Let me be clear, I believe I have the authority as a duly elected constitutional officer to enter into this agreement and bind the county to it,” he said during the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee meeting. “It’s budget-neutral and it is, in my estimation, necessary.”

County Attorney Karen Howe agreed. She told legislators that a contract dealing with spending county money or a bid would come before the Legislature.

“This does neither,” Howe said. “How District Attorney Perfetti has chosen to do this is District Attorney Perfetti’s prerogative. I am trying to move inside that in the best interest of the county.”

But some legislators were also surprised that Perfetti decided to go this route because they believed the original idea was heading on the right path.

“I thought we had a reasonable path to the diversion program,” said Legislator Cathy Bischoff (D-Cortland). “Yes, I did give him some language, but it was just really to tighten up the law. It wasn’t to say I didn’t want to go forward with the program. This catches me completely by surprise.”

Legislator Richard Stock (DCortland) said he thought efforts on the original idea were going well. He said it felt like the county Legislature was being left out entirely now.

“Well I would respectfully take issue with the idea that it was working well,” Perfetti said. “I had been working on this respectfully, Mr. Stock, since before you came on as a legislator, since 2018. I now don’t have the time because the courts are opening.”

Bischoff asked that Perfetti stop work on the plan until the matter on who authorizes contracts is resolved.

However, Perfetti said Wednesday that he spoke to County Administrator Rob Corpora and no such delay was mentioned.

Budget and Finance Committee Chairman George Wagner (R-Marathon, Lapeer) referred the issue back to the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee.