By Danielle M. Williamson TELEGRAM & GAZETTE STAFF
Thursday, July 2, 2009
Jeffrey McCob went to Gardner District Court this week with a $100 ticket hanging over his head. A month earlier, he had been pulled over on Route 2 for obstructing an emergency vehicle.
After making his case to Clerk Magistrate Whitney J. Brown, the Leominster resident was found not responsible and the ticket was dismissed. By challenging the ticket, Mr. McCob lost a couple of hours in travel and court time. It was certainly preferable, however, to paying the $100 and related insurance surcharges.
“If these types of tickets only came with a fine, maybe I'd have let it go,” Mr. McCob said. “But you're paying a lot more than the fine.”
Armed with the knowledge that more than 250,000 tickets for civil motor vehicle infractions were challenged in the state last fiscal year, legislators have voted to charge drivers $25 for such hearings. The budget Gov. Deval L. Patrick signed into law this week includes the change, which took effect yesterday, according to Trial Court spokeswoman Joan Kenney.
So, if Mr. McCob got pulled over today, with the same outcome after a clerk hearing, he'd still be out $25.
Local drivers who contested tickets at Gardner District Court, however, said the fine wouldn't deter them from fighting tickets. Paying $25 to potentially get out of hundreds of dollars in fines and surcharges is worth it, they say.
“I'd still be here,” Mr. McCob said after his hearing. “That wouldn't change my decision.”
State Sen. Stephen M. Brewer, D-Barre, was a member of the conference committee that discussed attaching a cost to clerk hearings. Legislators estimate the change will yield $5 million this fiscal year in revenue, all of which will be returned to the court system's budget.
By law, drivers who receive tickets for civil motor vehicle infractions are entitled to a hearing with a clerk magistrate. Until this fiscal year, which started Wednesday, there has been no cost to drivers who want to plead their case in front of a clerk, though it does cost $20 for drivers who lose the clerk hearing and want a second appeal with a judge.
With trial courts collectively taking an $18 million hit this year, Mr. Brewer said, “This provides a measure of restoration.”
“Is it fun? Is it something I'm happy about? Heck no,” Mr. Brewer said. “But there's a mountain of things we're not happy about because of the hand we were dealt.”
None of the area drivers interviewed was aware of the impending change. Gardner resident Linda LaFreniere, who got a speeding ticket in Westminster recently, believes it's wrong.
“You have to pay for the right to appeal? Forget it; that's not right,” she said while awaiting her hearing with the clerk. “Why should I have to pay to contest something I feel is wrong to begin with?”
Barbie Holman of Hampton Falls, N.H., was pulled over on Route 2 in May, after failing to move to the left lane while a police car was in the breakdown lane. Her ticket was dismissed after she told the clerk she was unaware of the relatively new requirement for vehicles to move as far away as possible from parked emergency vehicles.
She said people who win their appeal should not have to pay the $25 fine.
“If you're found not at fault, you should be cleared of all of it,” Ms. Holman said. “If that's not the case, then it seems police could be pulling people over for all sorts of things.”