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Bar News - September 16, 2011


Pre-trial Conferences Set for Traffic Cases

The Circuit Court is changing the process for handling traffic tickets aiming to save money and judge time by requiring a pretrial hearing for all defendants pleading not guilty.

By the end of the year, all persons who plead not guilty by mail to a traffic ticket will be required to attend a pretrial hearing before a trial is scheduled. The change eliminates automatic scheduling of judges, witnesses and law enforcement officers for trials in these types of cases, 90 percent of which are now resolved by negotiated pleas and not trials, according to the results of a recent pilot project.

"Automatically scheduling of trials, 90 percent of which never happen, wastes valuable judge time, clogs the court calendar, and requires law enforcement officers to appear in court when experience tells us their testimony probably wonít be needed," Circuit Court Administrative Judge Edwin W. Kelly said.

The mandatory pretrial conference program began as a pilot project in cities and towns covered by the Circuit Court District Divisions in Manchester, Franklin and Plymouth. The program was recently expanded to Circuit Court District Divisions in Concord; Nashua; Keene; Lebanon; Hampton; Hooksett, and Ossipee. It is expected to be the required process for all Circuit Courts by the end of the year.

Under the new system, the same number of cases are resolved in 90 minutes that now take a full day to handle. Savings also are expected in overtime pay for law enforcement officers who wonít have to appear for trials that were scheduled but rarely held.

The courts try to schedule trials on days when the officer who issued the summons is on duty; otherwise departments are required to pay the officer overtime. State police realized a significant reduction in court witness fees in jurisdictions that conducted the pilot project using mandatory pre-trial conferences. The officers who issue the citations do not have to attend the pre-trial conference which is held in a courtroom and attended by the prosecutor or a law enforcement representative. A court clerk is present to process the case and set a trial date if requested.

The new program was developed by the circuit court in collaboration with Commissioner Barthelmes. The court system also worked closely with the Department of Safety to develop the ability to share case information electronically.

"Under the current system, we schedule 30-40 of these plea by mail cases for trial on a given day in our busiest courts, but only 10 percent actually go to trial," according to Kelly. "Most people simply want a chance to tell their side of the story to the prosecutor," Kelly said. Additionally, in a large number of cases, parties simply donít show up at court on their trial date and they are found "administratively guilty," he said.

This article is based on information provided by the Judicial Branch Communications Office.

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