The State Troopers PBA is pleased that the Putnam County Magistrates Association is speaking out against the Division of State Police’s ill-conceived plan to prevent Troopers from plea-bargaining tickets in court. The PBA has been fighting the Division of State Police’s scheme on all fronts, including supporting a bill that was passed by the Legislature this year that would ensure Troopers are able to continue plea-bargaining. The bill has not yet been delivered to Gov. George Pataki for his approval or veto. In the meantime, the Putnam County Magistrates Association has written a letter to the Governor urging him to sign this legislation into law.
The Putnam County Courier newspaper wrote an article about the issue on Aug. 11, which is shown below.
By: Eric Gross
PUTNAM COUNTY – The Putnam County Magistrates Association has called on Governor George Pataki to override State Police Superintendent Wayne Bennett’s edict that limits members of the State Police from plea bargaining traffic tickets in local courts across the state.
Patterson Town Justice John King, who serves as president of the local association, forecast that the "cessation of plea bargaining by troopers would harm, not improve, the administration of justice in our courts."
King predicted that the elimination of plea bargains in village and town courts throughout Putnam will result in an "added cost to the local system while justice court calendars will become paralyzed."
Bennett has stated that his intention was to avoid the appearance of impropriety. Southeast Town Justice James Borkowski, past president of the Putnam Magistrates Association, said: "To a justice who adjudicated hundreds of thousands of traffic tickets over the years, not a single judge could ever recall a complaint by a motorist that he or she had been unfairly treated. The judges commended members of the State Police for handling their tickets in an extremely professional and fair manner."
King said there was "no reasonable basis to change the current system since from our standpoint, in the trenches-the troopers serve commendably and ethically."
Colonel James Schepperly, a former trooper from Brewster, is now assigned to the State Police headquarters in Albany. He sides with the superintendent. "This only returns members of the New York State Police to a policy that was in effect when I was a trooper issuing traffic summons in Putnam and Dutchess counties. We have always had a prohibition of our members engaging in plea bargaining since we believe it is improper for an arresting officer to be part and parcel of a disposition other than to appear in front of a judge to render testimony."
Schepperly called plea bargaining an "ethical violation."
King said plea bargaining was a "necessary part of an overburdened court system in which the justice courts cannot possibly try even a small percentage of the tickets issued. In the event there is no plea bargaining by troopers, the courts will become paralyzed and the troopers will spend dramatically more time in court to testify."
Schepperly countered: "The majority of New York State is handling court cases without trooper involvement very successfully from small counties to large municipalities like Onondaga with the vast urban population found in Syracuse. In Onondaga, a person ticketed can receive an offer from the district attorney via mail without a defendant or his attorney ever having to appear in court."
Judge Borkowski called Bennett’s ruling an "unfunded mandate from Albany that will force local villages and towns to hire prosecutors to plea bargain the cases or we will be trying cases from the beginning of the calendar at supper time to the wee hours of the morning."
Borkowski explained that 90-95 percent of the time cases were plea bargained in local courts. "Plea bargaining is a necessary evil in the justice court system because case loads are so heavy that the resources don’t exist to try even a small percentage of them," he said.
Southeast’s court is not only Putnam’s busiest but it is in the top two percent of activity courts across the state. Last year more than $1 million in fine revenue was generated by Judge Borkowski and his fellow town judge Richard Vercollone.
King called on Gov. Pataki to sign into law legislation approved by both the State Senate and Assembly earlier this year prohibiting Bennett from limiting a trooper’s ability to plea-bargain his or her tickets.
Senator Vincent Leibell agreed with the local magistrates. "For as long as I can remember, troopers have been in the courts negotiating traffic issues in a fair and just manner. The system is the most expeditious way to have a reconciliation in traffic court. To not do it this way, poses some significant problems for our court system," he said.