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Court tough on tickets

Only 3% of traffic cases win dismissal, report says

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Salt Lake City's new justice court isn't one to let go of traffic tickets.

City residents were 11 times more likely to have their traffic tickets dismissed in the state's 3rd District Court than in the Salt Lake City Justice Court, according to a recent report prepared for the Salt Lake City Council. The justice court will wrap up its first year of operation this month.

The report, drafted by city budget analyst Laurie Dillon, found that 3rd District judges dismissed 34 percent of the city's traffic cases during a six-month period in 1998. By comparison, during the current fiscal year, the city's justice court has dismissed only 3 percent of all traffic tickets.

Dillon said the differences are confusing but may be because in justice court most traffic tickets are handled by hearing officers.

At the state office that oversees municipal justice courts, assistant court administrator Rick Schwermer said the two dismissal rates "probably aren't comparing apples to apples." In short, Schwermer doesn't think city residents were getting off their traffic tickets 11 times more often in state court; however, the numbers are interesting.

Certainly, Schwermer said district court judges, used to seeing felony cases, might be more willing to dismiss a traffic ticket than a justice court judge who might deal almost solely in traffic offenses. But 11 times is a bit much, he said.

Besides uncovering the dismissal discrepancy, Dillon's report found that "based on the revenue, it appears that the justice court is collecting fines and fees to a greater extent than what the district court did."

Dillon pointed out that the district court collected roughly $2.7 million in fines for city traffic cases a year. By comparison, with the addition of the justice court, the city is projected to collect about $3.4 million for traffic tickets this year.

At the Salt Lake District Attorney's Office, prosecutor Kent Morgan suggested the numbers mean more people are paying for crimes, and rightly so.

"I would agree that justice courts are the place to resolve traffic offenses," he said.

Debra Moore, president-elect of the Utah State Bar Association, agreed that, for the most part, justice courts have improved in recent years with judicial oversight from the state Judicial Council and more training for justice court judges.

"Most attorneys have a great deal of respect for the justice court system, especially those that are aware of what the current requirements are for the justice court system," she said.

That said, Utah's municipal justice courts have received their share of criticism since state law allowed them in the '80s. The courts handle traffic infractions along with many misdemeanor cases.

Proponents say they offer swifter resolution to minor crimes and traffic offenses than city residents could find in the crowded state court system.

Opponents note that justice courts offer no separation of powers and are therefore ripe for corruption since they function as part of the executive branch of municipal government and judges are hired and fired by city officials. The courts have a budget like any other city department and some fear that if the court system isn't meeting budget expectations judges will be pressured to find more people guilty.

"If they become revenue sources for cities, there's the potential for justice not to be done," Bar Commissioner Stephen Owens said. Owens noted he was not speaking for the bar.

Moore agrees there may be cause for concern but said there is some movement at the state level to have municipal justice court judges be subject to retention elections every four years. That way, Moore said, the judges would have to answer to the public, instead of being subject to termination from city leaders.

E-MAIL: bsnyder@desnews.com