Providence Journal Exposes Cracks in Rhode Island Traffic Laws

Rhode Island Criminal Defense and DUI Lawyer James E. Smith located this article from the Projo.

Bad drivers slip through judicial cracks in R.I.

 

01:00 AM EST on Sunday, December 12, 2010

 

By Kate Bramson

Journal Staff Writer

 

In the 8½ years before Laura A. Reale ran a stoplight in Charlestown and killed a motorcyclist last spring — her fourth car crash on record — the Westerly woman had amassed tickets and warnings for 28 incidents of speeding, ignoring traffic devices and violating other rules of the road.

Months after Colin B. Foote’s death, the head of the state’s traffic tribunal revoked Reale’s driving license for two years for running that red light and driving too fast for conditions. In doing so, Chief Magistrate William R. Guglietta called Reale’s driving history “horrific.”

As Reale awaits sentencing Friday on a felony charge stemming from Foote’s death, a question lingers: How did someone with a horrific record keep her right to drive on Rhode Island’s roads?

A Journal analysis of Reale’s case highlights some ways such drivers can move unnoticed through the system.

•When drivers pay tickets early, by mail, no one examines their driving records.

•Drivers in Rhode Island automatically benefit from a “good-driving” statute and an expungement law that works with it to delete most traffic violations from the record after three years.

•The police often write speeding tickets for speeds well below what drivers were actually traveling.

•Record-keeping doesn’t always keep pace with court appearances and the scrutiny of traffic court judges.

Guglietta says a new law passed after a campaign by Colin Foote’s family has helped the state crack down on repeat offenders such as Reale. The law lets the Rhode Island Traffic Tribunal suspend drivers’ licenses for up to two years if they’re convicted of four moving violations within 18 months.

But there’s no mechanism in the law for tracking those drivers, and no way the tribunal can suspend their licenses if they pay by mail, the chief magistrate says.

“If they pay by mail and we never see them because they don’t come to court, that’s it,” he says.

They just keep driving.

Eight times, Reale simply paid her tickets — for speeding and blowing past stop signs — weeks before her court dates.

Once the traffic and municipal courts got their money, no one pulled her driver’s record and examined what was on it, Westerly Municipal Court and Traffic Tribunal officials say.

And so, no one was in a position to put things together and figure out that Reale was a problem driver — and decide whether to impose a more severe punishment.

In the Westerly court, where offenses for traveling 10 or fewer miles per hour over the speed limit are handled, Clerk Donna LaPlante says it’s standard procedure to pull driving records of people scheduled to appear. But she does that two weeks before a case is heard, so if she has already gotten the money, she never pulls the drivers’ records.

“There’s nothing I could have done — or the sitting judge,” LaPlante says. “There’s nothing you could do, because they paid the ticket.”

As long as drivers can afford the insurance, she says, that’s the way to just keep driving.

“People get smart,” she says.

At the Traffic Tribunal, just over a third of the court’s caseload consists of tickets paid by mail, Guglietta says. The records of drivers who pay that way aren’t examined in his court either, he says.

Now, because cases such as Reale’s have raised his “scrutiny,” Guglietta says he’s examining the state law passed in 1999 that says police officers issuing tickets shall allow drivers to dispose of their charges “without the necessity of personally appearing before the Traffic Tribunal.”

“It makes no sense,” Guglietta says. “It’s almost like — I don’t want to say a get-out-of-jail free, but a get-out-of-the-hearing free — where, just pay by mail and you get away with it.”

The past chief of the tribunal, the late Judge Albert E. DeRobbio Sr., pushed for this option as an important way to revamp a system with a “huge backlog” of cases, Guglietta says. When DeRobbio took charge of the traffic court system, it was under siege because of $39 million in uncollected fines and a woeful record-keeping system.

Also in 1999, a separate law requiring drivers with three offenses in one year to come to court was repealed, Guglietta says.

Now, with no major backlog, the current chief says it’s time to reconsider how the system works.

He’s still determining details, but Guglietta said he may ask theGeneral Assembly in the session that opens in January to require drivers with a couple of offenses in a year to appear in court and not simply pay by mail.

Despite her many traffic violations, Reale mostly avoided the Traffic Tribunal.

Twice, the Westerly police ordered her to appear there — the first time in January 2007, when after a car crash she couldn’t produce proof of insurance. Police Chief Edward A. Mello says that offense requires officers to send drivers to court. The second time, 18 months later, Officer Kristin Kyhos researched Reale’s driving history while issuing a speeding ticket, Mello says. Mello says Kyhos’ notes about the stop show she found that Reale had been issued four speeding tickets since February 2007.

Nine other times, the Westerly police allowed Reale to pay by mail, as did other departments an additional six times.

At her second Traffic Tribunal appearance, in September 2008, Magistrate William T. Noonan asked how she’d plead. On an audio recording, Reale is heard replying: “Guilty, and I think I’m supposed to get my license suspended.”

Noonan tells her: “You’ve got to slow down. I’m going to take your license for the minimum time I can, which is one month. But just be careful, because it’s supposed to be a lot more. I’m going to give you one more chance. It’s the least I can do. Please be very, very careful, because if you get another ticket …” and the recording trails off, indecipherable.

Reale says a moment later: “I’m gonna really work on slowing down.”

Reale pleaded guilty last month to the felony charge of driving to endanger, death resulting, involving the crash that killed Colin Foote. Now in the state prison, she awaits her sentencing on Friday.

Her lawyer, Stephen R. Famiglietti, said she would not speak to The Journal for this story, and neither would he.

In an interview last week, Noonan began talking about Reale by saying, “I was the only person in this entire system to suspend that woman’s license.”

But he said he probably would have suspended it for longer had he seen her full driving history.

He didn’t because of the state’s “good-driving” statute and its corresponding expungement law, which automatically wipes clean most traffic violations after three years — even if you haven’t been a good driver.

Although federal guidelines require the Division of Motor Vehicles to maintain violation records for 10 years — in case a driver wants to apply for a commercial driver’s license — the state reviews those records only for that purpose, says Dennis Gerstmeyer, chief of Operator Control for the Rhode Island Division of Motor Vehicles. Otherwise, he said, the state law about expunging the record of traffic violations after three years means those older records are never released.

The good-driving and expungement laws, therefore, ensure that traffic judges do not see a complete picture of the drivers before them. Instead, Gerstmeyer says, they see just the last three years of traffic offenses such as speeding, running stop signs and ignoring stop lights.

Felony driving convictions and alcohol-related convictions aren’t wiped off that easily and may still be visible years later to traffic judges, Gerstmeyer says. Convictions in traffic court for refusing a chemical breath test when suspected of drunken driving are automatically removed from a driver’s record after five years.

Drunken-driving convictions, which are handled in criminal court, and felony driving convictions such as driving to endanger, death resulting, stay on for at least 10 years. Those come off a driver’s record only if the driver successfully petitions a judge to expunge the conviction, Gerstmeyer says.

Noonan says three years’ worth of infractions is not enough. What he saw about Reale, he says, “was an inadequate record,” now that he has learned of her many infractions.

“This woman’s record was abhorrent,” he says.

Noonan also said drivers with multiple recent infractions sometimes slip by because records from municipal courts aren’t entered into the statewide database quickly enough to keep up with court dates. Warnings or tickets issued in the weeks before a court appearance don’t show up either, he said.

He thinks Reale may have gone unnoticed partly because of this. The time he suspended her license, he said he could make out a bit more of the audio that trailed off. He believes he hears a conversation with the police saying they just issued her a warning that’s not on her record. That would have affected his decision to suspend, he said.

And a year earlier, when she also appeared before Noonan, the magistrate can be heard saying, “You have a good driving record. Would you like to move to have this matter dismissed?” Reale replied, “Yes, I would,” but the paperwork from that appearance doesn’t back up a dismissed ticket. She paid the fine.

In fact, Reale had two speeding tickets on the driving record that was printed in advance of that hearing. His voice rising, Noonan insists the record in her file couldn’t possibly have been the one he had before him when he asked her that. Perhaps someone handed it to him after he spoke, and he changed his mind, he said.

“Someone else must have corrected me,” he says. “Sometimes the police have a different abstract than I do.”

Even what shows up on Reale’s and other drivers’ printed records doesn’t give the full picture of what they were doing behind the wheel.

When they issue speeding tickets, officers take note of drivers’ actual speeds and record them, usually circled, somewhere on the tickets. Those notes don’t show up on the copies handed to drivers, but the police and judges see them.

A number of Reale’s tickets were handled at Westerly Municipal Court, because she was ticketed in her hometown for traveling 10 or fewer miles per hour over the limit. Her first five Westerly speeding tickets were written for traveling 5 miles per hour over limit, and the sixth for 11 miles per hour over — even though the tickets indicate her actual speed on each occasion was between 22 and 26 over the limit.

When the police stop drivers for speeding, officers have wide discretion in how they handle each case, Westerly Chief Mello says, and they may do anything from issuing a verbal warning to writing a ticket for the exact speed at which they clocked the driver traveling.

Why might Mello’s officers have written Reale six tickets at much lower speeds than she was traveling? The chief says officers don’t always have a person’s driving record in front of them.

Sometimes, he says, infractions don’t show up, even when you research the record — particularly because of the good-driving statute. And while most of the department’s vehicles have mobile access to DMV records, not all do. Even those that do have access, he says, sometimes fail because the officers can’t get cell service.

Plus, he says, officers on traffic duty may be trying to stop the highest number of people to make the biggest impact — a strategy that means they’re moving quickly through each stop.

“It takes time to get a driving record back,” he says. “And sometimes they may choose the option not to research her driving record.”

Westerly is certainly not the only community whose speeding tickets don’t reflect actual speed. Research by The Journal into Reale and other drivers’ histories shows other departments do the same thing.

Another habitual driving offender who went on to kill someone on the road, David W. Hazard, had also been issued tickets over the years by several communities that didn’t reflect his true speed.

At the Traffic Tribunal, Guglietta says that there has been “evolutionary change” in the past two years, but that clearly more needs to be done.

The law passed in Colin Foote’s name has finally given the Traffic Tribunal justices the ability to suspend the licenses of drivers who have four infractions within 18 months. District Court judges have had the ability to suspend habitual offenders’ licenses since 1970 — but only for criminal driving offenses, which meant violations such as speeding and ignoring traffic devices have gone unchecked.

But still, when drivers are allowed to pay by mail, the Traffic Tribunal cannot use Colin’s Law to suspend their licenses, Guglietta says. For that reason, he says, he urges the police to check drivers’ records when they conduct traffic stops. He says he doesn’t know how traffic clerks and judges would be able to order drivers into court once they’ve paid their fines.

“I don’t think we have a mechanism to do that,” he says. “That’s why I’ve had communications with some departments — when they pull a car over, they’ve got to check DMV history and address that appropriately.”

In Westerly, Mello says the movement across the state for police to issue tickets electronically instead of on handwritten pads means that more and more officers will be checking drivers’ records routinely. The e-citation system requires them to do so, he says. Those e-tickets also get automatically entered into the DMV database, he says, cutting down on past problems of record keeping.

Noonan stresses that the “vast, vast majority” who come before the Traffic Tribunal are “good and decent people who’ve made a very minor error.”

Others before the court tend to be either repeat offenders who accept their punishments, or people who don’t care what their punishments are and will keep driving regardless.

“I wish I could tell you that with Colin’s Law, or any particular change in policy or procedure, that this was never going to happen again,” Noonan says. “But we can only regulate human behavior up to a point, and we’re doing the best we can with the tools we have.”31 violations, 4 of them visible

The long and hidden history of driving violations by Laura Reale before she ran a stop sign and killed motorcyclist Colin Foote in Charlestown on May 16.

 

If you have any questions about Rhode Island Motor Vehicle Laws or need a Rhode Island Criminal Defense or DUI Lawyer, contact Attorney James E. Smith as soon as possible at 401-649-0335 or via email HERE.

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About RI Criminal Defense Lawyer

My name is James E. Smith. I am a criminal defense lawyer in Rhode Island. If you have been arrested, or if you have been contacted by the police, call immediately for competent, skilled advise. 24/7 401-649-0335
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