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Fighting a ticket getting a little hard to do

New Hampshire Union Leader

September 03. 2011 7:26PM

CONCORD - Making your case to beat that speeding ticket in traffic court could take a little longer beginning next year.

A pilot program in three district courts - Manchester, Franklin and Plymouth - requiring a pretrial hearing before a trial was scheduled proved successful and was recently expanded to seven other district courts. It's expected to go statewide by the end of the year.

The change eliminates automatic scheduling of judges, witnesses and law enforcement officers for trials in traffic cases, 90 percent of which are resolved before a trial.

The new process is better for the public, the state and the courts, said Circuit Court Administrative Judge Edwin W. Kelly. The circuit court includes the district court division.

'Automatically scheduling trials, 90 percent of which never happen, wastes valuable judge time, clogs the court calendar and requires law enforcement officers to appear in court when experience tells us their testimony probably won't be needed,' Kelly said. 'A more efficient and economical process for resolving these cases, while also guaranteeing that citizens get to tell their side of the story in court, is long overdue.'

The change is expected to help alleviate court backlogs and save both the court system and police departments money.

Under the new system, the same number of cases are resolved in 90 minutes instead of a full day. That frees judges to handle contested trials and helps to alleviate backlogs, he said.

Law enforcement officials also expect significant savings in overtime pay to police officers due to the change.

'Pretrial hearings for traffic tickets will save money, but more importantly, the process puts police officers back on the street,' said Department of Safety Commissioner John Barthelmes.

The new program is similar to the summons mediation program set up about 10 years ago in the Manchester Police Department by then Sgt. and now Police Chief David Mara and former Officer Steve Ranfos, according to current legal division head Capt. Bob Cunha.

The department sent letters to traffic offenders who notified the district court they would pled not guilty. 'For every 100 letters we sent, we'd have about 60 coming in with an interest in resolving the situation,' Cunha said. 'It was done strictly on a case-by-case basis.'

He said the program worked very well, noting 10 to 15 percent of the cases actually went to trial.

'People often just want an opportunity to be heard about something they didn't necessarily convey to the officer,' Cunha said. 'More often then not, we reached some agreement.'

He said people have to understand how the process works. 'We do not give advice to people, we make an offer,' Cunha said. 'We stress to the person we are police prosecutors not your counsel. If you don't like the offer, it's certainly within your right to schedule a trial.'

The most significant difference between the two programs, he said, is Manchester's was voluntary while the new one is mandatory.

'I can't say enough about the whole concept. It's not new to us,' he said.

The new program was developed by the circuit court working with Barthelmes. Cunha said several State Police officers came and observed the Manchester negotiations before the pilot program began.

'Under the current system, we schedule 30 to 40 of these plea-by-mail cases for trial on a given day in our busiest courts, but only 10 percent actually go to trial,' said Kelly. 'Most people simply want a chance to tell their side of the story to the prosecutor.'

He said in a large number of cases, defendants simply don't show up at court on their trial date and are found administratively guilty.

About the same number of cases were resolved using the new pretrial hearings and about the same number went to trial.

Negotiated agreements were reached in 52 percent of the cases in the pilot program, compared to 60 percent in the old system, and 9 percent went to trial, compared to 7 percent, Kelly said.

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