Urban Legends and Appearance Tickets in New York

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It’s a snow day here in upstate New York. The schools are all closed, and throughout the Capital Region, children are at home watching TV, while their parents shovel snow and try to coax them outside.

Now, adults tend to think that snow storms are natural phenomena and that school closures are a natural consequence of heavy snow. But fourth graders know better. A nine-and-a-half year old we know has explained how she herself brings about snow days, and it’s a simple, three step process. (1) Leave four spoons in the freezer overnight; (2) flush three ice cubes down the toilet; and (3) sleep with your pajamas inside out, and backwards.

Not that adults are immune to magical thinking. “The judge has got to dismiss this ticket,” one man assured us. “The trooper wasn’t wearing his hat when he gave it to me. If the trooper isn’t wearing his hat, the ticket’s no good, right?” This shows a touching and naive faith in human nature, but it’s a myth.

There is actually some mystery surrounding traffic tickets, as we’ll get into below. For one thing, where do troopers get the authority – with or without the stetson – to issue them for traffic violations they didn’t witness themselves? But while the Criminal Procedure Law (CPL) requires that a ticket be issued “by a police officer or other public servant authorized by law to issue same,” it says nothing about hats.

A traffic ticket is more formally known as a ‘simplified traffic information’. It’s defined in Section 1.20(5) of the CPL, and according to that definition, it’s

a written accusation, . . . by a police officer or other public servant authorized by law to issue same, filed with a local criminal court, which . . . charges a person with one or more traffic infractions or misdemeanors relating to traffic, and which may serve both to commence a criminal action for such offense and as a basis for prosecution thereof.

The section is silent, though, as to when a ticket can be handed out.

Police officers often hand out tickets for things they haven’t witnessed. After an accident, for instance, an officer will typically do some investigation at the scene, then write up the driver who seems to be at fault. A glance at the CPL, however, would suggest that they shouldn’t.

There’s clearly a statutory basis for doing it when the driver is being accused of a crime, such as driving while intoxicated, or aggravated unlicensed operation. Under CPL Section 150.20 an officer can hand out an appearance ticket any time an arrest is authorized. Section 140.10(1)(b) of the CPL, in turn, allows a police officer to arrest a person for “a crime when he or she has reasonable cause to believe that such person has committed such crime, whether in his or her presence or otherwise.”

What if the charge is a mere traffic violation, though, such as failure to yield the right of way or imprudent speed? A traffic violation is a ‘petty offense’ as defined by CPL Section 1.20(39), and under CPL 140.10(1)(a) an officer can make an arrest for a petty offense only “when he or she has reasonable cause to believe that such person has committed such offense in his or her presence.”

Well, it turns out you can read too much into a statute. According to Farkas v. State of New York, a 1978 decision out of the Court of Claims,

[p]rior to the enactment of CPL article 150 ‘appearance tickets’ were primarily confined, on a State-wide basis, to traffic infraction cases. The ‘traffic ticket’ . . . had no statutory sanction for its issuance . . . There were no restrictions on the use of the ticket, and it appears that they were issued whether the offense was committed in the officer’s presence or not.

CPL article 150 apparently wasn’t intended to limit the circumstances under which traffic tickets could be handed out. The intent was rather to expand the number of situations in which the appearance ticket could – at the officer’s discretion – be used. The alternative, in many of those cases, would have been arrest and immediate arraignment.

As in so many cases, then, it turns out that officers hand out traffic tickets for traffic violations they haven’t witnessed because they can, and they can because they always have.