New Augusta traffic bureau proposed

Motorists charged with minor traffic offenses in Augusta might no longer have to face a judge in Richmond County State Court.

A traffic bureau, proposed by State Court Chief Judge Richard Slaby and Solicitor General Kellie Kenner-McIntyre, would divert tickets for less-serious traffic offenses – such as speeding and seat-belt violations – away from the sheriff’s records bureau, solicitor’s office, public defender’s office and State Court, freeing their resources to focus on more serious offenders.

“We in State Court would continue to handle all serious infractions,” such as driving under the influence, vehicular homicide and anything resulting in an automatic license suspension, Slaby told Augusta Commission members at a committee meeting Monday.

The bureau would allow Kenner-McIntyre’s office “to concentrate on those misdemeanor crimes that are most significant – the batteries, the assaults, the stalkings, the things that really need to have time spent on them,“ Slaby said.

Minor traffic offenses make up as much as 90 percent of the State Court calendar, Slaby said. The tickets of offenders who don’t pay the fines at the sheriff’s office within 10 days are now sent to the solicitors’ office, which researches driving histories and assigns them to a court date, Kenner-McIntyre said.

Most jurisdictions have a way for drivers charged with minor traffic offenses to pay the fines and not have to go through court, she said.

“Some people it makes feel somewhat criminalized,” Kenner-McIntyre said.

The heavy traffic case load isn’t a result of Operation Thunder, the solicitor said.

The sheriff’s office had written more than 2,000 traffic citations before Operation Thunder began, she said.

According to most recent data from Georgia’s Administrative Office of the Courts, Richmond County State Court disposed of 26,842 cases in 2011, and 24,877 remained open. The cases included 1,572 serious traffic incidents, 2,776 nontraffic misdemeanors, 1,504 civil filings and 18,732 “other traffic” cases.

Local parking violations, an issue raised during recent discussions about downtown parking, probably aren’t within the State Court traffic bureau’s jurisdiction, Slaby said.

“I would love to see that the court would possibly take the parking tickets,” Commissioner Marion Williams said. Slaby said he’ll consider it.

Diverting minor traffic offenders to the bureau also would limit the amount of work required of the public defender’s office, which recently requested additional funding to cover attorneys required after a recent opinion from the Georgia Supreme Court.

“In the criminal system, you have to give everybody every constitutional right that they’re allowed,” Slaby said.

The bureau won’t create much savings in the public defender or solicitor general budgets, however.

Commissioner Donnie Smith, a lieutenant in the Georgia State Patrol, asked whether “we could take the money from a position in the solicitor’s office and maybe from the public defender’s office and use toward this, because it’s going to be greatly reducing the caseload.”

Kenner-McIntyre said that although two clerks might be reassigned to the bureau, the bureau won’t eliminate the need for staff attorneys.

A commission committee motion to proceed with the plan passed, 4-0.

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