Raymond Armstrong was crossing the Western Gateway Bridge when he noticed the red and white lights of a police cruiser drawing closer to his supercharged 2004 Ford Lightning pickup.
Moments later, a state trooper was handing the Glenville resident a speeding ticket for driving 15 mph over the limit. The ticket was Armstrong’s first in nearly a decade, a fact in his favor when the county assistant district attorney suggested a plea bargain.
Rather than have Armstrong pay a minimum fine of $180 and receive four points on his driver’s license, the prosecutor offered to knock down the ticket to a parking fine. The deal prevented both from having to sit through a trial and ended up costing Armstrong a $100 fine — all of which will eventually make its way into Rotterdam’s general fund. (Armstrong was tagged on a section of the bridge that is legally Rotterdam’s jurisdiction.)
“I was treated fairly,” the relieved Armstrong said with a shrug after emerging from the court Thursday. “I broke the law and I have to pay, but he gave me a break.”
Scores of traffic violators like Armstrong file into Rotterdam’s Justice Court each month. They are joined by a number of other lawbreakers, including those charged with local code infractions and a variety of misdemeanor crimes.
And when their cases are resolved, they often leave with wallets that are considerably lighter. Fines, fees and bail forfeitures collected by some of the state’s 1,262 justice courts can translate into hundreds of thousands of dollars for both the state and localities.
Towns often use this money to offset the cost of having a local court, which operates independently from county and city courts. But in many cases, the revenue collected by a justice court is much larger than the municipal cost of operating the court, meaning towns and villages can use the funding to help control taxes.
For instance, Rotterdam’s court — one of the top grossing justice courts in the Capital Region — poured $427,244 into the town in 2008. This figure represents about 3.2 percent of the $13 million general fund budget and would have otherwise been raised through property taxes.
“It’s a very critical component of the budget,” explained Supervisor Steve Tommasone. “If we didn’t have those hundreds of thousands of dollars of revenue, that amount would certainly be commensurate in taxes.”
Justice court judges deal primarily with hearing local ordinance and traffic violation complaints, but can also try misdemeanor crimes and arraign felony defendants. All revenue from the justice courts is reported to the state Comptroller’s Office, which then divvies up the funds between the state, county and locality.
The portion kept by the state depends on the infraction. Town or village ordinances — such as parking fines — provide a greater local share to municipalities than to the state. Speeding over a state limit means the penalty goes to the state.
Port Chester, a Westchester County village with a population of about 28,000, was New York’s top grossing justice court in 2008, earning more than $2.3 million for municipal use and another $642,384 for the state.
Hempstead, a village of about 58,000 on Long Island, received more than $2 million from the Justice Court Fund last year, making it the second-highest in the state. However, Hempstead contributed only $341,065 in fines to the state, ranking it below more than 50 other justice courts.
COLONIE TOPS LOCALLY
In the Capital Region, Colonie brought in $2.4 million in fines, securing the town as New York’s third highest-grossing justice court. But the town ended up with less than half this amount — $1,116,435.
Colonie budgeted $664,690 for the justice court this year. Provided the town continues to collect revenue at its 2008 pace, Colonie will have a significant sum to help offset other municipal costs.
“It costs a lot to run the justice department,” Supervisor Paula Mahan said. “In turn, it is a benefit to the taxpayers.”
Like Colonie, Rotterdam retains less than half the revenue its court takes in. Overall, the Rotterdam Town Court took in $949,739, making it Schenectady County’s top-grossing justice court and ranking it 43rd in New York.
The town usually allots about $250,000 to cover the court’s administration, including two justices and five clerks. Tommasone said the resulting funds are usually enough to reduce town taxes by about 2 percent each year.
“That money is basically part of the general fund,” he said. “It helps offset the operation of government, the operation of the police department and obviously the court system.”
FEES ADD TO FINES
The amount of money the justice courts collect from convictions may seem staggering at first glance. But what is often overlooked is the state Legislature’s startling increases in mandatory court fees, which remove all discretion from local justices.
All speeding infractions are automatically assessed an $85 court surcharge upon a guilty plea or plea bargain. Likewise, those motorists admitting to almost any equipment violation are assessed a mandatory $55 surcharge, a fee that cannot be waived by the presiding judge.
“There are situations where I impose a fine and the surcharge is more than the fine,” said James Hughes, a former state trooper and town justice who has served the bench in Clifton Park for nearly three decades. “In certain instances, we can waive a fine if the person is indigent, but we can’t waive the surcharge.”
Hughes said many of the people he sees in court are shocked by the level of surcharges — fees that were roughly $10 per ticket during the 1990s. He said some feel the fee is being assessed by the town.
“They all think it’s coming back to the town,” he said. “And I’m sure [the town] wishes it were, but it’s not.”
Increases in these fees without cause or reason is proof the Legislature is attempting to garner more funds through the justice courts, explained Scott Feifer, a Manhattan-based traffic attorney with satellite offices across New York. He said the surcharge increases that were once dedicated to funding certain state initiatives are often issued now without explanation or a clear message as to what the extra money will fund
Feifer also questioned whether agents of the law are being encouraged to write more tickets when they do make a traffic stop. He said it’s possible police are using less restraint when it comes to letting minor violations slide.
“Who’s to say when times are tougher, officers aren’t being encouraged to find more violations,” he said. “When before they’d use their discretion in favor of the driver, now maybe they’re not doing that any more.”
The state police have, in fact, been writing more tickets. Statewide, troopers wrote 1.01 million tickets in 2007 and 1.06 million tickets in 2008; in less than seven months this year, they’ve written 606,293.
Troop G Spokeswoman Maureen Tuffey said the increase in tickets has nothing to do with more state police being on the highway or more vigilant enforcement. She said troopers haven’t been directed to issue more tickets and are under no quota system.
“It’s not like the state gives us a toaster oven for every 50 tickets we write,” she said.
MONEY AT STAKE
Capital Region’s top 10 grossing justice courts:
Municipality, statewide rank, total fines collected, local portion
* Colonie, 3, $2,421,305, $1,116,435
* Clifton Park, 31, $1,144,908, $482,511
* Bethlehem, 37, $1,019,239, $543,346
* Rotterdam, 43, $949,739, $427,244.10
* Guilderland, 46, $869,711, $446,569
* Halfmoon, 50, $839,553, $385,536.25
* Wilton, 60, $731,762, $285,235
* Princetown, 72, $656,661, $202,066
* Schodack, 75, $650,963, $325,763
* Coeymans, 76, $647,070, $228,800
Source: State Comptroller’s Office