Seneca County having to play catch-up with speeders
Former Junius justice let tickets sit for years
By Gary Craig
Gannett News Service
ROCHESTER — Authorities in Seneca County are trying to resolve thousands of speeding tickets — some dating back more than a decade — that were apparently left to languish by a former town justice there.
Junius Town Justice Stephen Brown recently discovered the thousands of unresolved tickets and driving violations left by his predecessor, C. Ernest Brownell, who was removed from the bench in 2004.
Brown began to take action, moving to suspend the licenses of offenders, even if their violations occurred more than a decade ago.
That's when Monroe County Family Court Judge John Rivoli, the administrative judge for town justices in Seneca County, intervened. He told Brown that any tickets predating 2000 should be dismissed.
“My recommendation is that those tickets should be ultimately dismissed as a furtherance of justice,” Rivoli said.
In New York, a person accused of speeding can either pay the fine or challenge the allegations at a court hearing. If the accused does neither, he or she can be considered a “scofflaw,” leading to license suspension.
According to Rivoli, Brown discovered between 1,200 and 1,300 tickets dating from 2000 and after, and close to 3,000 predating the year 2000. Authorities are currently working with Brown to pore over the records and resolve them.
That means that drivers who thought they'd dodged a speeding ticket from Junius seven years ago may be in for a surprise — a license suspension. And because the New York State Thruway runs through Junius, the town gets plenty of speeders and speeding tickets. State Police say more than 700 speeding tickets were handed out on the Thruway in Seneca County last year.
Rivoli, Brown and law enforcement officials are working together to settle the thousands of unresolved tickets. The Seneca County District Attorney's Office is helping to the extent it can, even though it typically doesn't prosecute speeders, said First Assistant District Attorney Robert Mascari.
“We always try to do everything we can to help assist the justice courts in our county,” Mascari said. “To go back and sort through literally thousands of tickets in cases in which we don't handle the prosecution is unfortunately beyond our resources.”
Brown would not comment. Rivoli said Brown was simply trying to address a mess left him by a predecessor, Brownell, who was removed from the bench. Brownell could not be reached for comment.
Under the law, there is precedent that indicates Brown, who is not a lawyer, was acting properly.
In 1990, the state Commission on Judicial Conduct disciplined a judge who did not take action on motor vehicle violations. The commission, which rules on possible misconduct or malfeasance by judges, determined that a town court justice in Cayuga County should be formally admonished because he had let seven years of motor vehicle violations languish. In all, that justice failed to act on 228 pending cases, the commission determined.
“Thus, he permitted defendants to avoid legal process by simply ignoring the summonses they were issued or the fines levied against them,” the commission ruled.
Similarly, a Chemung County town justice was disciplined in December in part because he did not act upon traffic violations involving 142 defendants from 2000 through early 2006.
Brown himself was admonished in December by the Commission on Judicial Conduct. Brown was scheduled to be the justice in an eviction case in which a Junius woman apparently owed back rent to her landlord. However, no case proceeded and no hearings were held after Brown learned the woman had agreed to pay $550 in back rent.
Brown later discovered that the back rent had gone unpaid. Though he then had no formal case before him, he wrote a letter to the woman in which he said he could garnish her wages, suspend her license and jail her if she didn't pay the money, the commission said.
The commission determined that Brown did not realize there was a legal procedure to be followed for judgments in small-claims cases. Brown also acknowledged that “there was no basis for him to intervene in this matter.”
Brownell, who also was not a lawyer, was removed from the bench after the Commission on Judicial Conduct determined in 2004 that he had seriously violated judicial ethics codes.
The Commission on Judicial Conduct concluded that Brownell had dipped into courthouse funds to pay a claim to a man who had yet to be paid for damage done to his vehicle.
In that case, Brownell had ruled that a small claim should be resolved with a $365.60 payment from the man accused of causing the damage to the car. The accused man was not notified of this decision.
Brownell issued a $365.60 check to the car owner from the Town Court's bank account. “Even though the funds did not go into the (Brownell's) own pocket, such an unauthorized use of official monies constitutes egregious misconduct,” the commission ruled.