PARIS — Have you ever gotten a ticket, showed up to court, and prayed the officer who wrote it wouldn’t appear?  Come spring, that lucky scenario is less likely to come true.

According to Andrew Robinson, district attorney of Androscoggin, Oxford and Franklin counties, major changes to the way traffic court cases are prosecuted are set to roll out in April.

Currently, traffic violations are prosecuted by the District Attorney’s office, and police officers only show up if the cases go to trial. Once the restructuring is complete, officers will be involved with every step of the process, arriving at court to talk to people with tickets and determine who need to return to court, something done now by the Assistant District Attorney’s. Once officers are trained, however, a representative of the District Attorney’s office will not be there.

Robinson said the impetus for the change was the sheer weight traffic violations put on the DA’s office, already stretched thin.

Robinson said guidelines set by the American Bar Association in 1963 ruled that prosecutors, yearly, should not take over 350 cases.

According to Robinson, in Androscoggin, Oxford, and Franklin counties, more than 8,092 cases were submitted to court during the 2018 fiscal year. That number, according to Robinson, doesn’t account for civil cases;  that full number is about 13,879 cases. Split up between the office’s 14 prosecutors, that’s 578 criminal cases, and, 991 total cases per prosecutor, well above the American Bar Association limit. 

Cutting traffic court cases from that equation would free up valuable time for the DA’s office.

I perceive it as an attempt to stop the system from breaking. This is what we’re trying to address,” said Robinson. 

According to Robinson, many counties, including Cumberland, have had this system for years. He said a few police departments in Franklin County, including Farmington Police Department, have undergone a pilot program of this restructuring.

Farmington Police Chief Jack Peck said his department has been prosecuting its own cases since December, and although the transition is still ongoing, it has been largely positive.

“We have nothing but positives,” said Peck. “Our officers have direct involvement with their cases … they know [in] real time what’s happening.” said Peck.

According to Sheriff Scott R. Nichols of the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office, the office hadn’t been notified of the changes, but saw them as logical.

“It makes perfect sense. It frees up the ADA’s to do other things, other than minor traffic violations,” said Nichols. “My people are perfectly capable of doing that. I realize there’ll be some training involved, but other than that, I don’t think it’s a bad thing.”

According to Oxford Police Chief Michael Ward, the change is only a matter of time, and the department ultimately will do what the DA’s office asks. A daytime officer will take up the task of court duties every week; however,  Ward said taking an officer and putting him at the courthouse will take him away from other responsibilities.

“He’ll be assigned to that task when he can be doing other cases,  or detective work,” said Ward. Ward said the change comes with some positive impacts.

“One good thing is, we’ll know what happens to our cases as they go through traffic court,” said Ward. 

According to Lt. David St. Pierre of the Lewiston Police department, the change won’t have much of an impact on the department; the position will simply be incorporated into a daytime patrol officer’s daily duties.

“It’s a little bit more work for us, but the workload isn’t huge,” said St. Pierre.

According to Rumford Police Chief Stacy Carter, the change won’t be new territory for the department.

“We do prosecute town ordinance stuff, so it’s not completely out of our realm,” Stacy said. “It’s not rocket science. The facts are the facts.”

Stacy said the department would attend training provided by the DA’s office, and would follow the example set by other counties that have prosecuted this way for years.

“ We’re interested in hearing the training the DA’s office will provide,” said Carter.

Lewiston Police Department, large, and within walking distance to the Lewiston District Court, might not feel an added workload, but Livermore Falls Police Chief Chief Ernest N. Steward said his department has a lot to figure out before the changes take place. 

Livermore Falls is about 40 minutes from the Lewiston District Court, and has a staff of six full-time police officers. Steward said getting one to court every week will be a challenge.

“We’re so far away from the court now, I’m not sure just how we’re going to be able to work it out,” he said. “For bigger departments, it’s just downtown for them [to get to the courthouse]. We have about 30 miles to travel,” said Steward.  He said officers will likely have to be paid overtime, a expense the department hasn’t had the time to figure into the budget.

  “I wish we had an opportunity to factor what’s going on and work it into the budget,” said Steward.

In Maine, police departments don’t see revenue from traffic violations; that money goes to the state.

“We’re asked to put in extra work, and don’t see the benefit … the ultimate thing is that the state [is] making the profits, and we get nothing out of it, except for the expense,” said Steward.

Ultimately, Steward said he realizes the shift will help the DA’s caseload, and free the department to spend more time on criminal matters.

In the meantime, Steward said, Livermore Falls Police Department has a lot to figure out. 

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