The answer to this question is fairly simple; when it comes to New York traffic violations, the Courts of New York State have allowed deeply rooted judicial principles founded on fairness to be disregarded. As I said in a previous blog, far too many judges have no apparent concept of the presumption of innocence and proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. This fact is more prevalent in traffic court where, in most (but not all) courts, if a traffic violation actually goes to trial, the guilty outcome is a foregone conclusion. The trial, sadly, is a rubberstamp process and the rubberstamp says “Guilty”.
The New York criminal justice system particularly as it pertains to lower level offenses is designed for speed. Some New York courts handle hundreds of tickets per day; others handle dozens per day. Needless to say, fair trials are not on the top of the judge’s list of things to do. In my opinion the desire to “move cases” has eroded our rights to a fair trial in New York traffic court. A prime example of placing the need to “move cases” over the rights of defendants is the practice of having the police officer who issued the ticket both plea bargain the ticket and if necessary, prosecute the ticket. This practice has been condoned by the highest court in New York. See People v. Soddano, 86 N.Y.2d 727, 631 N.Y.S.2d 120 (1995) where the New York Court of Appeals held that officers may, upon a proper delegation from the duly elected District Attorney, prosecute the traffic tickets they issue. The Court acknowledged that the elected county District Attorneys are ultimately responsible for all prosecutions in their particular county (See County Law § 700) but held that the County District Attorneys could properly “delegate” the authority to prosecute traffic infractions to the issuing police officers.
In reality, I doubt the officers have any formal delegation of authority from the elected District Attorney to prosecute their own tickets. Tilem & Campbell handles hundreds of traffic tickets each year and I only recall one time where a local village prosecutor actually presented a written delegation of authority from the elected District Attorney allowing that local prosecutor to prosecute traffic violations within that village. In fact, if you were to ask the issuing officer under what authority he was acting as prosecutor, he or she would most likely have no idea what you were talking about. Most police officers probably learned as rookies that they negotiate and/or prosecute their own tickets. It is in reality, a matter of custom. Ask a local judge to dismiss or inquire as to what delegation of authority the officer has to act as prosecutor and most (not all) local court judges will look at you like you are speaking an unknown foreign language. That’s the reality of New York traffic court.