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Suffolk County To Send Worst Traffic Scofflaws To Criminal Court

CENTRAL ISLIP, N.Y. (CBSNewYork) -- A new policy starting this week targets the worst repeat traffic offenders in Suffolk County.

As CBS2's Carolyn Gusoff reported, the offenders will now be sent to criminal court if they do not show up for traffic court.

License suspensions pile up by the dozens for dangerous drivers who ignore tickets and court dates. But scofflaws will now have it far less easy.

"We're hoping to send a message that they're serious offenses, they're dangerous drivers, and they should be handled by an elected judge," said Paul Margiotta, executive director of the Suffolk County Traffic and Parking Violations Agency.

The agency is partnering with Suffolk County Criminal Court to move the most serious offenders -- when jail time is possible -- out of traffic court into district court with defense attorneys and holding cells at the ready.

"We have the resources to do it. We have the secure facilities to do it, and we will do it in the most egregious cases," said Suffolk County District Court Supervising Judge Karen Kerr.

It is one response to a rash of crashes involving drivers who should not be on the roads. Just last week, a driver with 30 suspensions allegedly hit and killed a pedestrian in Copiague.

In New York state, unless a driver happens to be pulled over by police, that person can ignore suspensions for years. The state Department of Motor Vehicles does not automatically notify police.

"Local law enforcement agencies have access to DMV's statewide electronic record system, which allows law enforcement officers to determine which motorists are subject to one or more license suspensions or revocations," the state DMV said. "While DMV has invested a significant amount of effort to build and maintain this system, law enforcement agencies are directly responsible for using this tool to keep our roadways safe and enforcing the law."

In Suffolk County, where there are 13,000 scofflaws, the head of the traffic agency says that system is flawed.

"There's absolutely no notification. Suspended licenses are a major issue," Margiotta said. "People continue to drive with suspended licenses, as you've seen – 30 suspensions, 50 suspensions -- they wind up getting in accidents and killing people, and that's when we catch them."

But not everyone thinks drivers who ignore traffic tickets belong in criminal court.

"Some of them do, yes, of course, but there are some people who, you know, they have to make a decision whether they're going to buy food or they're going to go to work or they're going to pay their mortgage," said Suffolk County Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Smithtown). "These fees on these tickets now for the scofflaws have gone through the roof."

Legal Aid attorneys at criminal court may help drivers pay off their debts.

Meantime, traffic officials said the vast majority of repeat offenders are dangerous drivers taking advantage of an inefficient system.

A AAA study called "Unlicensed to Kill" found that one in five deadly crashes involves a driver with a suspended or revoked license.


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