City launches virtual traffic court

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The city of Rochester has rolled out a virtual traffic court, allowing violators seeking to plead down to a lesser offense to do so online.

Launched July 5, the program is the first of its kind in New York, says Leslie Smith, executive director of the city Traffic Violations Bureau. Suffolk County on Long Island is readying the launch of a similar effort but has not yet done so, she says.

Under the program, drivers accused of moving violations can discuss their options with the city’s traffic prosecutor online, an innovation that adds a new option to the previously available options of meeting with the prosecutor in person or in a phone conference. The new online option will greatly speed the process for violators, Smith predicts. Instructions for making a plea online can be found here.

An online plea adds additional costs—an $8 fee for using the service and a 5 percent surcharge to any fine a driver agrees to pay. There are also limits on who can use the online service. Drivers accused of speeding more than 41 miles over the posted limit are excluded as are drivers accused of a third speeding violation in an 18-month period.

Also excluded in an initial phase of the online process are violators who have hired a lawyer or accused violators’ requesting a deposition. Lawyers are allowed in a second phase, Smith says.

The online program’s launch comes some four years after the city reversed a decades-old policy of not allowing violators to plead down traffic offenses, making it the only Monroe County jurisdiction with that rule.

The reversal in 2018 came with the city’s takeover of traffic violation cases from the state, which allows only guilty or not guilty pleas for offenses like speeding, illegal turns or improper lane changes, Smith says.

Kevin Morabito is a lawyer who routinely defends drivers accused of moving violations. A former Monroe County assistant district attorney, he is now in solo private practice.

By reducing the number of points on a violator’s driver’s license and the amount of a fine, a plea to lesser offense can offer significant benefits to a violator, he says. Still, Morabito cautions, negotiations between an accused violator and a prosecutor without benefit of a lawyer’s advice could have hidden pitfalls.

A prosecutor might, for example, suggest a plea that adds fewer points and a reduced fine but still puts a driver in line to pay an extra fee or to have their license suspended or revoked.

New York’s point system applies values to each moving violation. Speeding one to 10 miles per hour over a posted limit, for example, adds three points; going 41 miles per hour or more over the limit adds 11 points. Failure to stop for a school bus or texting while driving add five points each.

Drivers convicted of violations totaling six points in an 18-month period have to pay an additional fee of at least $100 and might have to pay hundreds more dollars depending on the number points received and the seriousness of moving violations.

Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer. The Beacon welcomes comments from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name.

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