Crackdown in traffic court
King County District Court will bring in a prosecutor to work traffic cases, saying the integrity of the system suffers under the current system in which challenges to tickets are met with silence and citations are often dismissed regardless of whether the law was actually broken.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Every day in King County District Court, dozens of traffic citations are thrown out, often over technicalities and with little regard for whether the law was actually broken.
The court's chief judge, Barbara Linde, cringes when it happens.
"Motions to dismiss are granted one after another," the judge said Wednesday, and it's mostly because the King County Prosecutor's Office doesn't staff traffic court. Casual courtroom visitors have complained that "it looks like the fix is in," she said.
"It is eroding public confidence," the judge said.
It's also costing the county revenue from lost fines at a time when budgets are being squeezed like never before.
Since 2009, budget reductions have required cuts amounting to 36 full-time prosecutor positions and 14 of the support staff.
Linde's solution, recently approved by the Metropolitan King County Council, is to require Prosecutor Dan Satterberg to assign a lawyer to traffic-infraction hearings.
For at least the past five years, prosecutors have been absent from traffic court. The idea was efficiency, so the law was changed to allow the judge to read the citation, which represented the entire state's case.
"The judge just cannot be in the position of being seen as the prosecutor," Linde said.
But that was only part of the problem.
Defendants who showed up with an attorney to contest the tickets were met "with an empty chair" at the prosecution table. Often, judges had no choice but to dismiss cases because nobody was there to respond to a legal challenge, regardless of its merit.
While she didn't have specific figures, Linde estimates that "more than half" of the traffic cases in which the defendant hired an attorney are dismissed.
"The system has been thrown out of balance, and this is aimed at restoring some of it," Linde said.
"Motions to dismiss have been met with silence. That will no longer be the case," at least in some cases.
The move to require the Prosecutor's Office to staff traffic hearings comes at a time when Satterberg has announced that he must cut 16 prosecutors and eight support-staff members to meet his reduced budget. He has said prosecutions of serious property crimes and domestic violence will likely suffer as a result of the cuts.
"I'm sure this is a frustration" for Satterberg, Linde said.
Dan Donohoe, a spokesman for the prosecutor, said Linde's assessment is accurate.
"He's frustrated that the legal system isn't being adequately funded at all levels," he said.
Linde said the assignment of a lawyer is necessary to restore balance to what is supposed to be an adversarial system.
"We acknowledge that the prosecutor will be spread pretty thin — they will not be at every hearing even now," she said.
That's because nearly 250,000 citations are filed in district court every year, "the large bulk of them traffic cases," Linde said.
She expects the position will result in additional revenues, at least enough to fund the cost of the traffic prosecutor's salary and benefits.
Some other jurisdictions have implemented similar programs. On Monday, for example, Kitsap County started assigning prosecutors to traffic court.
Linde said some jurisdictions have reported a decrease in the number of dismissals and an increase in revenues. She did not have specific projections for King County.
Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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