Thousands of drivers cited by police for serious traffic offenses are getting away with it as the courts dispose of many of these cases without a guilty finding, records obtained by FOX Undercover show.
“You have to wonder sometimes why put the effort into it if these conviction rates are going to be so low,” said Saugus Police Off. James Scott.
The rapid dismissal of many of these driving cases was on display one morning in Lynn District Court. In case after case of driving without a license and similar offenses, the outcome was the same.
“At this time the district attorney's office is recommending to dismiss your unlicensed registration charge if you pay 200 dollars,” the judge told one defendant, a refrain repeated throughout the morning.
It was the same story with another defendant charged with driving with a suspended registration.
“Your honor, the Commonwealth would move to dismiss count one on $200 court costs,” the prosecutor said.
“I'll pay that today,” the defendant said.
FOX Undercover discovered what happened in Lynn District Court is happening in courts all across Massachusetts. It's detailed in the state's own records, which reveal what happens with traffic citations after police write them.
A report from the state's Motor Vehicle Insurance Merit Rating Board, an obscure part of Gov. Deval Patrick’s Office of Public Safety, reveals the low rate of guilty findings. The report shows that, from 2006 to 2008:
“They’re getting away with it with minimal court costs or no court costs,” said Scott. “I've seen records where people have been cited for operating suspended 5,6,7,8,9 times and you just consistently see dismissed, dismissed, dismissed, dismissed…. It's just being circumvented by the court. Where's the teeth?”
FOX Undercover reporter Mike Beaudet asked what message it sends to people committing these offenses.
“That the courts are not serious,” Scott said.
Thomas Nolan, a former Boston police lieutenant who is now a criminal justice professor at Boston University, reviewed the traffic statistics obtained by FOX Undercover.
“We don't want to see a situation where police officers throw their hands up and say, ‘What is the sense of me giving a citation when it's simply going to be thrown out by the court,’” he said.
“I think people who work in the law enforcement community would be very surprised and even shocked by these numbers,” he said. “The entire traffic enforcement effort is being undermined by finding so many thousands of these motorists not responsible for the violations that the police have found them committing.”
A spokeswoman for the state Trial Court says the numbers are misleading, explaining that a case resulting in something else besides a guilty finding doesn’t mean the driver is getting away with anything.
The Merit Rating Board statistics “…count only 'convictions' and do not include the cases where the court imposed a monetary assessment as the result of a negotiated resolution between the defendant and the prosecutor which was accepted by the court,” court spokeswoman Joan Kenney said.
Kenney also pointed out that some cases are continued without a finding, where the person admits to sufficient facts, but the case is ultimately dismissed if the person stays out of trouble.
But Nolan says we’re all affected by what's happening in the state's courts.
“I think most would agree that in metropolitan Boston, we do have a somewhat tangible level of lawlessness on the roadways that's certainly in no way being addressed by having police citations for automobile law violations upheld and supported and endorsed and validated by the district courts,” he said.
The Essex County District Attorney’s office, which prosecutes cases in Lynn District Court, said that the punishment for some of these offenses is so low that it’s not worth the effort to carry a case to trial. The maximum penalty for the first offense of driving without a license is a $1,000 fine, which judges are unlikely to impose, spokeswoman Carrie Kimball Monahan said.
“… to best utilize our and the courts' limited resources, it is not unusual that we recommend dismissal on payment of costs so that we can focus our attention and resources on more serious matters that threaten public safety,” she said.
The Mass. Executive Office of Public Safety and Security turned down FOX Undercover’s request for an interview. A spokesperson said the numbers speak for themselves, but noted that just because a driver isn't found guilty or responsible doesn't mean there aren't consequences, such as court costs.
But only a guilty or responsible finding affects a person’s driver’s license or insurance status, which is more good news for drivers who don't behave on the roads.