The two counties that make up Long Island, (Nassau County and Suffolk County), have each established “courts”, officially referred to as “Agencies” to hear and resolve traffic and parking tickets. These agencies were created to prevent the County(s) criminal courts from being overloaded from traffic offenses. We’ll briefly discuss the key differences between the Nassau and Suffolk Traffic & Parking Violations Agencies, and traditional Long Island Criminal Courts.
The Nassau and Suffolk Traffic and Parking Violations Agencies were created by each county’s legislatures pursuant to New York State Law to alleviate the buildup of cases in the already busy criminal courts. In my experience of visiting the Traffic & Parking Violations Agencies in Nassau and Suffolk County daily, I have seen people representing themselves make some very costly missteps and publicly state incorrect misconceptions about these traffic courts. Therefore, I thought it would be helpful to discuss the similarities and differences between the Long Island Traffic and Parking Violations Agencies, and the traditional criminal courts.
Court of Record: Although the atmosphere of the traffic courts are less formal than the criminal courts, these agencies are still what is referred to as “courts of record.” This means that due to New York State laws, and judicial rules, the clerks of the Traffic and Parking Violations Agencies are not permitted to discuss an individual’s case over the phone, nor discuss the case with non authorized persons. What this means, is that if you have a case at one of these traffic courts, the clerks and court staff can only discuss the case with you personally, or your attorney authorized to appear on your behalf.
Sentencing: Much like a criminal court, when an individual pleads guilty to an offense, or is found guilty after a trial, the Judicial Hearing Officer (J.H.O., see differences below) has the power to sentence the motorist to a penalty. The penalties that can be imposed are pursuant to the New York State Vehicle and Traffic Law, and are mainly monetary fines. However, in extreme circumstances, the law authorizes up to fifteen days in jail for some moving violations.
Plea Bargaining: In criminal courts, it is very common that an individual charged with a criminal offense will be offered a “plea bargain” meaning, an agreement from the prosecutor to plea guilty to a lower level offense or petty violation, in exchange for resolving the case immediately without requiring a trial, or further litigation. Plea bargaining is common in the Nassau and Suffolk Traffic & Parking Violations Agencies. The prosecutors in the traffic courts will very often offer to reduce your points carrying moving violation to a lower point offense or a no point parking ticket, in exchange for a fine, in order to resolve your case immediately, without requiring a trial.
Judicial Hearing Officers: In the Traffic and Parking Violations Agencies, the presiding judges over trials and plea bargain hearings are called “Judicial Hearing Officers” or J.H.O for short. A J.H.O is often an individual who is a sitting judge in a local village or town court, or was a judge and has now retired. Although not formally a judge, I have seen many individuals make the mistake of not treating the men or women with the respect of a judicial officer. In this attorney’s opinion, an individual is best served by addressing the hearing officer as “judge” or “your honor”, as most if not all the officers were or are judges on Long Island. Don’t forget, even though less formal than a criminal court, these individuals are nevertheless empowered to issue penalties to motorists, and their authority should be respected.
Manner of Calling Cases: Unlike a criminal court, where there often are many individual courtrooms with prosecutors and judges assigned to each, in the Nassau and Suffolk Traffic Courts, motorists often sit in one large room, similar to the New York State DMV, and wait for their name to be called, before going up to a small podium to conference their cases with the prosecutors. At these podiums, is where the prosecutors will discuss a proposed plea. A motorist is under no obligation to accept the plea, and can elect to go to trial if they believe they have a strong case. After this conference, the motorists will go in a group before the judicial officer to enter their plea bargains, or set a date for trial. Take note, that for individuals representing themselves, the wait time at the traffic courts can be from 1 to up to 4 hours for a case to be called and resolved due to the number of cases the agencies handle daily.
Right to Counsel: in criminal cases, that is, where a person is charged with a misdemeanor or felony, a person has a right to have an attorney with them from the beginning of their criminal case to its conclusion If a person cannot afford to hire an attorney, the Court will appoint the public defender to represent them free of charge. This is a major difference in the Nassau and Suffolk County Traffic Courts. An individual always has the right to hire a lawyer to represent them in traffic court, however if they cannot afford an attorney, the person will not be given one for free, and will have to represent themselves.
This list is not exhaustive, and there are many other differences and subtle similarities between the traffic courts and criminal courts. Notably, the manner of trying cases in the Long Island Traffic Agencies should not be taken lightly, and do require an understanding of procedure and the rules of evidence. This article is meant only to provide a brief overview of the Long Island Traffic Courts, and what a person going might expect if they do not hire a traffic lawyer to go on their behalf.