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DA Rain authorizes police officers to prosecute vehicle and traffic law violations

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CANTON — St. Lawrence County District Attorney Mary E. Rain has instituted a policy that could change the landscape of courtrooms across the county.

Ms. Rain recently authorized all police agencies in the county to have their officers prosecute vehicle and traffic violations.

“It’s something that is a program that is established across the state. It was in effect when I was a patrolwoman 30 years ago when I started and I liked it,” Ms. Rain said. “It is something that many of the patrolmen like. It allows officers to establish beyond reasonable doubt and understand it better when they are dealing with more serious cases.”

Ms. Rain added that the new policy is not something that police officers are required to utilize, but the option will be there for them.

“It is not a ‘you must.’ It is a ‘you may,” she said. “Several police agencies in the county prefer the option to handle their own vehicle and traffic trials.”

Police officers will be allowed to prosecute only violations for which they issued the ticket. A court-ordered appointment as a special prosecutor will not be required.

Massena Village Police Chief Timmy J. Currier said Ms. Rain had discussed her plan with him before taking office.

“This is not a new concept. We had been gearing up to do this under the previous administration (former District Attorney Nicole M. Duve), which included the training of our staff,” Mr. Currier said. “It is more important for the prosecutors to be focused on more serious criminal cases. Our staff are more than qualified to prosecute our own tickets.”.

The Massena police chief said he suspected there will initially be a spike in the number of vehicle and traffic law violations that are contested, but once offenders find police officers are well qualified to prosecute the cases, the numbers will drop to their typical level.

Mr. Currier also noted it was unlikely the move would affect his department’s budget. The department’s contract pays off-duty officers a minimum of two hours of overtime when called in for a trial.

“If there is a trial, the officer has to be there,” he said. “Our court overtime cost is under $7,000 a year.”

Potsdam Village Police Chief Kevin M. Bates said that the new approach is not something that he is against, but he said that some experience is needed ahead of time for members of his department.

“Due to the large case load that the DA’s office has, I would not be opposed to officers prosecuting their own traffic violations. Before we start prosecuting, however, because my officers have not prosecuted before, I would like the DA’s office to give some training and guidance so they are familiar with the proceedings,” Mr. Bates said. “Once that’s been done, I don’t think it would be a big deal.”

Ms. Rain said allowing police officers to prosecute vehicle and traffic infractions provides local courts with greater scheduling options.

In addition, she said prosecutors will be available in local courts to speak with citizens about their traffic tickets.

“Direct access to prosecutors in court will resolve many tickets prior to trial. Many times people who plead guilty for traffic violations just want to talk to a prosecutor in court. Now they can have any of their experiences heard and their problems can be heard right then and there. Hopefully we can resolve it before they go to trial since they will have access to a prosecutor during the day right out in court,” the DA said. “We give the public access to the court whereas they were denied before. I don’t think it will have an affect on the budgets.”

Potsdam Village Administrator David H. Fenton also said that he doesn’t see the change as something that will affect the police department’s budget dramatically.

“Typically the police officer has to be at the trial anyway and they get a certain amount of overtime. So I don’t see it affecting the budget too much,” Mr. Fenton said.

“I think we’re going to have to wait and see if it affects our budget. We will see how long it takes to prosecute each trial. As time goes on, the trials will get easier,” Mr. Bates added. “We will have to do some and see if it affects overtime. At this time it’s hard for me to tell if there’s going to be an effect on our overtime budget.”

Ms. Rain suggested the change should be a win-win situation. “With early resolution of vehicle and traffic tickets court resources could be better directed at more serious crimes and offenses.This is a tried and true program that will provide benefits to local police, justice courts, and motorists of St. Lawrence County. We remain available to assist local police agencies who chose not to participate in the program,” she said.

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