Exclusive: Hamptons Judges Refuse to Hear School Bus Stop-Arm Camera Cases, Causing Backlog
School may be out for summer, but hundreds of drivers who received school bus stop-arm camera tickets learned they can’t fight the summonses because Hamptons town judges are refusing to hear such cases, Dan’s Papers exclusively reports.
Four Southampton Town Justices have all refused to hear the not-guilty pleas of drivers challenging the tickets automatically generated by passing a stopped school bus equipped with one of the photo enforcement cameras, and two East Hampton Town Justices may be following suit, according to officials with knowledge of the matter. Nearly 700 cases have been pending on the South Fork since local school districts began using the devices about two years ago, with the backlog continuing to grow as town and court leaders are at an impasse over how to resolve the dispute — depriving drivers their day in court indefinitely.
“They’re asking for trouble,” said Southampton-based criminal defense attorney Dan Rodgers, who was previously a Suffolk County prosecutor in the district attorney’s East End bureau. “Even in parking ticket cases where there’s nobody behind the wheel, you’re entitled to a hearing — and that’s much less serious than passing a school bus full of kids.”
Up-island, the Hauppauge-based Suffolk County Traffic and Parking Violations Agency (TPVA) has been hearing school bus stop-arm camera cases for years without issue, with a similar system in place for the agency’s Nassau County counterpart to the west. But on the East End, town and certain village justice courts have jurisdiction over these cases.
“TPVA works diligently to ensure all stop arm cases are heard in a timely manner and we are encouraged that a number of towns on the East End are doing the same, but we need all municipalities to fulfill their legal obligation to ensure a successful program,” a Suffolk County spokesperson told Dan’s Papers.
Vehicles pass stopped school buses about 50,000 times daily in the state, according to statistics provided by the New York Association for Pupil Transportation, a nonprofit school bus safety advocacy group that lobbied for passage of the cameras.
New York State legalized in 2019 photo traffic enforcement to ticket drivers who illegally pass a bus when it’s stopped while children get on or off of the vehicle. Nassau and Suffolk county lawmakers approved legislation authorizing local school districts to contract the school bus stop-arm cameras later that year and the devices started being deployed district by district in 2020. Under the law, violators can be fined $250 for a first offense, $275 for a second offense within 18 months and $300 for a third or subsequent offense within the same time frame.
Photo enforcement of traffic laws has proven controversial over the years. Red light cameras are routinely blasted as a cash grab at Suffolk legislative meetings, school zone speed cameras were nixed after a botched rollout in Nassau and work zone speed cameras were the most recent to rile drivers this year.
Of the 665 school bus stop-arm camera cases that have piled up over the past two years, Southampton has the biggest backlog: 478, according to Bus Patrol, the Virginia-based company that operates the program. There are nine in the Village of Southampton. The Town of East Hampton has the second most with 156, followed by 16 in the Village of East Hampton and six in the Village of Sag Harbor.
“I think it’s important that everybody have the opportunity to be heard in the proper forum and be treated fairly and respectfully,” Southampton Town Justice Barbara Wilson, the only South Fork town justice to comment for this story, told Dan’s Papers.
Sag Harbor village officials did not respond to requests for comment on the issue. East Hampton town officials referred questions to the town justices, who did not provide a comment. And East Hampton village officials denied knowledge of the situation.
“These are potentially serious allegations with potentially serious ramifications,” said Southampton Village Trustee Len Zinnanti. “The Village of Southampton Justice Court operates independently from the rest of Village Government and is overseen by the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct and not the Board of Trustees.”
The Advisory Committee on Judicial Ethics issued an opinion in 2021 in response to town and village justices that raised concerns about a “lack of due process” and the fact that the law does not allow judges to reduce the fines or let drivers plead down to lesser offenses.
“The judge’s obligations (under the school bus stop-arm camera law) regarding both the statute and its implementation, may have constitutional dimensions under the state or federal constitutions,” the opinion states. “It would be inappropriate for the judge to defer to an inconsistent legal interpretation offered by another branch of government which would require the judge to participate in conduct the judge has concluded is unlawful.”
A Suffolk court leader who spoke on the condition of anonymity speculated that law not allowing for negotiating lower fines could be bad politically for an elected judge in a small jurisdiction presiding over potential voters’ cases.
The judges’ refusal to hear these cases has sparked a behind-the-scenes debate among local officials seeking to resolve the backlog. An idea was floated for at least one of the towns involved to hire an administrative law judge (ALJ) to handle the disputed cases, but that proposal has yet to reach fruition, according to sources with knowledge of the deliberations.
“We have had some conversations amongst ourselves in the town that we could retain an ALJ to handle the matters and or replicate what the western towns are doing through remote hearings,” Southampton Town Attorney James Burke told Dan’s Papers. “We have had very little or no direction from the state on this and in my discussions with the other eastern towns they have not either. I don’t believe the matters should be placed on the judicial calendar.”
Bus Patrol, which operates the program in all 71 school districts across Suffolk — 11 in the Hamptons — called for an end to the judicial game of chicken that has drivers’ right to defend themselves caught in the crossfire.
“It is critical that East End courts fulfill their obligations under the law to ensure reckless motorists think twice before endangering the life of a child,” said Jason Elan, a spokesman for Bus Patrol.
North Fork judges have been adjudicating school bus stop-arm camera cases in the towns of Riverhead and Southold — without any of the courtroom drama playing out in the Hamptons.
“They are moving violations just like any other that go through justice court,” Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell said of the tickets. “What difference does it make if the infraction was witnessed directly by a police officer or witnessed later on a video camera? I’m not a judge nor an attorney, however, if Southold’s justices believe they should be heard in a local court then I presume that’s the right decision.”
Riverhead Town Supervisor Yvette Aguiar said that while the town court is hearing the bus cam cases, Riverhead town judges “have indicated these appear to be more appropriately adjudicated in an administrative judicial forum.”
Shelter Island officials did not respond to requests for comment.
The state representative for the South Fork maintains the town courts are the proper forum to hear the cases.
“Drivers clearly are granted due process to challenge these tickets — it’s in the state law,” state Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. (D-Sag Harbor). “There is nothing in the state law that would preclude local courts from hearing these cases … Drivers have a right to challenge these violations.”
State court leaders have gotten involved to try to resolve the Hamptons judicial brouhaha, but the issue remains as gridlocked as traffic on Montauk Highway in summer.
“The Office of Court Administration [OCA], through the local Administrative Judge, is working diligently, in collaboration with the relevant town and village justices and their municipalities, to ensure that appropriate actions are being taken to allow these matters to be addressed,” Lucian Chalfen, a spokesman for the OCM, told Dan’s Papers.
Suffolk’s administrative judges also didn’t respond to requests for comment, but Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman indicated that a resolution may soon be on the horizon.
“The town is currently in talks with, and working together with the judges who serve the Town of Southampton in order to establish an administrative procedure for adjudication of these matters similar to that of the Suffolk County Traffic and Parking Violations Bureau,” he said in a statement. “We hope to have a clear, concise, and fair procedure established as we enter this school year. The town board recognizes the immense value, and effectiveness of this program in deterring motorists from passing stopped school buses, and ensuring the safety of children crossing the street to board their bus.”
But for now, more than two years since the debut of the school bus stop-arm camera program that has generated $25 million in revenue for school districts in Suffolk last year, drivers challenging hundreds of these cases continue to be denied their day in court. And until the issue is resolved, anyone who pleads not guilty to a citation in the mail for illegally passing a stopped school bus will only be notified that their court date will be scheduled in the future — the cases hanging over the defendants until a resolution is finally reached.
HAMPTONS SCHOOL BUS STOP-ARM CAMERA CASE BACKLOG STATS
East Hampton Village- 16
East Hampton Town-156
Source: Bus Patrol