Change in Md. law for those fighting traffic tickets

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 31, 2010; 10:51 PM

Maryland officials are hoping that a small change in the way traffic citations are handled can produce big savings for state and local governments and keep more police officers on the street.

Under a new law that takes effect Saturday, drivers will have 30 days to request a court date if they want to contest a traffic citation for a relatively minor violation, such as speeding.

Under the old law, motorists were assigned a trial date automatically and were expected to appear if they did not pay their fine before then. This resulted in a large number of no-shows in District Court, with the police officers who wrote the tickets often cooling their heels.

The Maryland State Police has estimated that the new law - which brings Maryland in line with most other states - could save the agency $500,000 a year in personnel costs. In the past, about half the cases for which troopers showed up were not heard, the agency said.

The savings could also be substantial for local governments that write a lot of traffic tickets.

In 2009, about $3.5 million and 75,000 officer-hours were spent on overtime for District Court appearances in Montgomery County - about 35 percent of the total overtime budget - officials there said. A good fraction of that is expected to be saved if officers come to court only when alleged violators are more likely to show up.

The change, which the General Assembly adopted in its session that ended in April, "was probably the most important bill of the session to law enforcement officers," said Kristen M. Mahoney, executive director of _blankthe Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention.

Mahoney said less time spent in court will mean more time available for police to enforce other laws, including legislation to crack down on sex offenders that also passed last session.

The bill changing the process for traffic citations is one of a handful of Maryland laws taking effect Saturday. The vast majority of the legislation approved during last year's session took effect July 1 or Oct. 1.

The new traffic violation law does not apply to more serious offenses, such as drunken driving, for which accused offenders are required to appear in court.

The bill passed both chambers of the General Assembly unanimously, generating little controversy, and was signed by Gov. Martin O'Malley (D).

In Virginia, drivers are given an initial court date by which they must either pay their fine or make an appearance to schedule a later trial.

In the District, the Department of Motor Vehicles' Adjudication Services unit processes payments or sets up a hearing for those who want to contest a ticket.

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