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Posted at 9:00 AM ET, 01/ 7/2011

Md. asst. sheriff drove new traffic law

By Mary Pat Flaherty

There was no single moment when Major Joseph Montminy, assistant sheriff for Charles County, realized he could be on to something that would change Maryland law.

Instead, he remembers a steady stream of eye-opening days starting in 2008 when deputies sat in court waiting to testify at hearings for ticketed drivers only to have the driver fail to show. In many cases, the county was paying overtime or having officers who had just come off an overnight shift staying up for court dates, said Montminy, who oversaw operations for the sheriff's office.

"With everyone trying to do more with less it seemed a terrible waste of resources -- and not just money but people," he said. The traffic cases were relatively minor incidents, including speeding, that carried pre-set fines.

In Maryland, ticketed drivers were assigned a trial date automatically and were expected to appear if they did not pay their fine by a set day.

Montminy began researching and found that Maryland was unusual in automatically assigning court dates to drivers who had not asked for them -- which meant officers had to be on hand.

"Just in my department we had some officers in there eight or nine days a month and then the driver was a no-show," he said, a drain that cost his department about $6,000 in September 2009, the month he asked other departments to tell him what they were paying out for similar court hearings.

Sixteen agencies replied and said they had spent about $838,000 in traffic court overtime for that month. And while some agencies (Montgomery and Prince George's counties among them) did not isolate how much was spent just on cases in which drivers failed to appear versus all traffic court overtime, "the experience is that much of that expense would have been the cost," for no-shows, said Montminy who based that belief on statistics he had gathered from the statewide court database.

Statewide data between 2008 and 2009 showed that nearly 60 percent of ticketed drivers who had not already paid their fines later failed to appear for their automatically assigned court dates.

Montminy began working to get the law changed, testifying in Annapolis and shoring up legislative support for a legal change that passed unanimously and took effect Jan. 1.

Under the new law, drivers will have 30 days to request a court date if they want to contest a traffic citation for the minor violations -- a system that should enable better officer scheduling and is estimated to save Maryland State Police alone $500,000 a year in overtime, according to an analysis by the Department of Legislative Services, which weighs the fiscal impact of legislation for the Maryland General Assembly. A violator who ignores the traffic ticket completely faces having his license suspended -- no change from the previous law.

The new law does not apply to more serious offenses, such as drunken driving, for which accused offenders are required to appear in court.

Automating changes to traffic forms and citations for the new law carry a one-time cost of $250,000, the legislative analysts said, but federal funds already available for crime control can cover that outlay. Overall, the analysts said, the change in law will bring "significant expenditure savings, especially for larger counties" and help deploy officers more efficiently.

For his work, Montminy received the 2010 President's Award from the Maryland Sheriff's Association.

It may take a year to clear out existing cases and begin to realize the full savings, said Montminy. "I think our costs will shrink big time."

By Mary Pat Flaherty  | January 7, 2011; 9:00 AM ET
Categories:  Charles, Mary Pat Flaherty, Maryland  
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