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Guilderland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, March 26, 2009
Guilderland plans to get third judge, rejects Redlich’s idea to cut court burden
By Anne Hayden
GUILDERLAND The town board Tuesday voted, 4 to 1, to hire a third judge because of Guilderland’s high volume of criminal cases.
The lone dissenter, Councilman Warren Redlich, sparked controversy when he suggested the town reduce the burden on the court by changing the way Guilderland issue tickets for drunk driving.
While citizens gave testimonials at the meeting of the way drunk driving crashes had devastated their lives, Redlich maintained his recommendation would get more people off the road and into alcohol treatment.
Mary Tanner-Richter, an assistant district attorney for Albany County, and head of felony driving-while-intoxicated charges in the Major Crimes Unit, explained that there are three types of DWI:
Common law, which is issued if someone registers lower than a .08 blood alcohol content, but shows signs of intoxication;
Regular DWI, issued for a blood alcohol content between .08 and .18; and
Aggravated DWI, issued for anything over a .18.
District Attorney David Soares created a policy to deal with aggravated DWI charges that does not allow for plea-bargaining if someone registers a BAC of .20 percent or higher. At the March 3 Guilderland Town Board meeting, Redlich said the Soares’s policy was “driving the burden on our courts.” He told The Enterprise this week that some judges in Albany County have told him the Soares’s policy has created more work for the courts, and that he believes it is “an unfunded mandate, and I think it’s wrong.”
“We might have a lot less hearings,” said Redlich, if the individuals in certain situations were written a regular DWI rather than aggravated. “If the defendant has no ability to plea-bargain and is forced to plead guilty, the lawyer will likely fight the charge. I’d say half the time the case will be won and the person will walk,” said Redlich. He explained that, if the charge is reduced to a regular DWI, the person will enter alcohol treatment and have their license revoked for at least six months.
Redlich also suggested that police should simply not write tickets for people who register a DWI of below .08 percent. A lawyer himself, Redlich said he routinely sees these tickets thrown out in court, rendering them a waste of time. “Is a BAC of .05 percent a DWAI? No, it’s not,” said Redlich this week. “The law says it’s not. I didn’t write the law; I’m just suggesting we follow it.”
Runion, who is also a lawyer, disagreed with Redlich’s DWI suggestions, commenting at the March 3 meeting, where Redlich first raised the issue, that he did not think the town board had any jurisdiction over how the police department issued tickets in the first place. “There isn’t anything that the town board can do about the DA’s policies. That is between the district attorney and the court system,” Runion said at the meeting.
“I think that the issuance of the tickets is up to the discretion of the police officer…I, personally, would not want to take away any discretion in the police officers for issuing tickets,” said Runion.
Toll of drunk driving
Many members of the public came out to the meeting on Tuesday, to make their voices heard on the issue of DWI ticketing.
The town board listened as Elaine Person, Capital Region vice president of Remove Intoxicated Drivers, spoke of the toll drunk driving has taken on citizens of Guilderland. Several members of the community gave their own testimonials.
Anna Russo, an Altamont resident, stood before the board and told the emotional story of her family’s experience with drunk driving. Her 5-year-old nephew and 4-year-old daughter were killed when the car her sister-in-law was driving was hit by a drunk driver. Her daughter lived for 19 days, enduring multiple surgeries, before she died. The blood alcohol content of the driver who hit the car was .05 percent, she said.
Runion also read several letters into the record, including one from the DA’s office, which took the position that taking action on Redlich’s suggestion would be unwise. “It is the position of the Office of the Albany County District Attorney that such action by the Guilderland Town Board would not only be unwise and contrary to public safety, but that it would also violate the constitutional separation-of-powers doctrine,” the letter said.
The DA made it clear that he did not think the town board had any jurisdiction to mandate how the police issue tickets; his letter explained that to do so would encroach on the separation of the three branches of government executive, legislative, and judicial. The police are part of the executive branch, and the town board is legislative.
“At the point of arrest, it really is up to the police offer,” Tanner-Richter told The Enterprise. “They have gone through extensive training to look for those signs of intoxication,” she said. If a driver fails a field sobriety test, but registers lower than a .08 percent, an officer is likely to issue a DWAI, she said.
“We have to let the officers perform their jobs in the way that they’ve been trained,” Runion told The Enterprise this week. “They go through over a year of training for a reason.”
Runion also agreed with the DA’s thoughts. “We sit as a legislative body only,” said Runion this week; he is also the chief executive of the town. “We took an oath to uphold state, federal, and local laws. These are discussions you have at the state and federal level, not the town level.”
After the March 17 meeting, Redlich told The Enterprise he still thinks the town board should not have jurisdiction over the police department. “The notion that elected officials can’t have jurisdiction over town employees is anti-democratic,” he said. “We pay their salaries, we tell them how to do their jobs.”
Carol Lawlor, Guilderland’s police chief, said “I strongly believe we should follow the letter of the law, and I am completely supportive of the DA’s policy.” Lawlor said she trusted the officers judgment over when to issue tickets, and didn’t question them at all. “I’ve never had a town board member make a suggestion like that in the 30-plus years I’ve been here,” she added.
After a review of local court statistics provided by Administrative Judge George B. Ceresia, as requested by Redlich, the board voted on whether to authorize Runion to apply to the New York State Legislature, authorizing the establishment of a third judge in Guilderland Town Court. The statistics showed that, while some other local courts handled more overall cases and generated more revenue than Guilderland, and operated efficiently with two judges, Guilderland had a higher percentage of criminal cases in comparison. Runion had attributed this earlier to arrests at Crossgates Mall, largely for petit larceny. Other courts, including Rotterdam, Bethlehem, and Clifton Park, had a higher percentage of traffic cases.
Redlich told The Enterprise that he didn’t feel the board had a proper discussion on how to reduce the burden on the courts. “It was just an attack- Warren-Redlich night,” he said. “Nobody even talked about the other practical suggestions I made at the last meeting.”
The part-time judge would cost, at most, $56,000 a year, Runion said earlier. “Adding this third judge would constitute reckless spending,” said Redlich.