Motorists ticketed for traffic offenses in Montgomery County will soon find it easier to plead their cases in the county's traffic courts, court officials predict.
Under a plan to be adopted by early December, motorists will wait no longer than two hours in traffic court to have a case heard.
Now, because no controls exist to limit the number of people coming to court on any one day, motorists sit four to eight hours in court to plead innocent to traffic charges, officials said.
Under the new system, three traffic court sessions will be scheduled each Tuesday and Friday in the county's three traffic courts. During each two-hour session, 20 cases will be on each court docket. Since court officials estimate it takes six minutes to try each case, this should result in a maximum two hour wait, they said.
The new, entirely computerized system will be set in motion when an officer tickets a motorist for failing to obey the traffic laws.
The ticket will contain instructions for paying the fine by mail or for reserving a court date and time to contest the charges by clipping a portion of the ticket and mailing it to the court.
Each police officer's court date will be keyed into the computer in Annapolis and matched up to a set of number of motorists the officer has ticketed who wish to stand trial.
This set up will limit the number of motorists coming to court each day.
Now, tickets relfect a court date when they are issued, based on the police officer's court schedule.
Montgomery County will serve as the pilot county for the project aiming to streamline the traffic court system.
If successful, the project will be adopted statewide within a year, Robert F. Sweeney, chief of the District Court of Maryland, said.
The $500,000 project is being funded by the state Department of Transportation and the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration.
Sweeney and Jeffrey L. Ward, administrative clerk of the Montgomery County District Court, began studying the possibility of implementing such an automated traffic court docket two years ago.
At the time, Sweeney said it was evident the bureoning traffic court case load was causing havoc.
About 70,000 traffic citations are issued yearly in the county. While only one in five motorists actually comes to court, this number still results in a sizable case load, he said.
"Our courts were swamped with people and we had no control over the number of cases on the docket," Sweeney said.
On occasion as many as 1,200 cases were scheduled on one day while only 20 were docketed on another, he said.
Sweeney called it "a great inconvenience to our citizens" to be forced to remain in court all day.
The computer also will provide a printed court docket giving the names and addresses of the defendants and the charges against them.
The judge will be able to write the disposition of the case on the computerized docket to be forwarded to the state Department of Motor Vehicles in Glen Burnie for its records.
This will eliminate a mountain of paperwork, Sweeney said.
The computer also will help simplify the state's current accounting system for keeping track of fines.
Sweeney and Ward said they are optimistic about the project's success despite delays since April due to computer programming problems.
To develop the system, Sweeney and Ward studied similar ones in Detroit, New YorK, Miami, Chicago and the District of Columbia, Sweeney called the plan to be instituted in Montgomery County "a hybrid" of all the ones he witnessed. He predicts the system will improve the court's public image.
Although it appears the entire traffic court procedure will be automated, Sweeney is quick to point out that the most important segment of the case, the rendering of an innocent or guilty verdict remains unmechanized.
"It will still be on a person-to-person basis, there will be nothing computerized about that," Sweeney said.
"We are doing nothing to deny any citizen his or her right to a fair trial."
In fact, hoth Sweeney and Ward say they are convinced the new, swifter system will encourage people to come to court.