Judicial Branch, State of New Hampshire
603-271-2646 ext 2359
PRE-TRIAL CONFERENCE TO BE REQUIRED
Cost saving change to be in effect statewide by Jan 1
CONCORD, August 31óBy 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 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 won't be needed," Circuit Court Administrative Judge Edwin W. Kelly said. "A more efficient and economical process for resolving these cases, while also guaranteeing that citizens get to tell their side of the story in court, is long overdue," Kelly said. "This new process is better for the public, the state and the courts," 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. A list of cities and towns included in each Circuit Court District Division is posted on the Judicial Branch website.
Under the new system, the same number of cases are resolved in 90 minutes that now take a full day to handle, freeing up judges to handle contested trials in other cases and helping to alleviate backlogs in courts around the state. The change in procedure is also expected to result in significant savings in overtime pay to law enforcement officers who are required to show up for scheduled trials.
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 new procedure also helps assure that law enforcement officers are available for law enforcement duties rather than attending trials on minor motor vehicle matters. 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.
"Pretrial hearings for traffic tickets will save money, but more importantly the process puts police officers back on the street," Department of Safety Commissioner John Barthelmes said.
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 which eliminates duplication of work by staff at Safety and then in the courts.
"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 don't show up at court on their trial date and they are found "administratively guilty," he said.
An eight month pilot project conducted in Manchester, Franklin and Plymouth showed that roughly the same number of people resolved their cases by a negotiated plea at a mandatory pre trial conference-52 percent- compared to 60 percent of those whose cases were scheduled automatically for trial. Using the pretrial conference process, 9 percent asked for trials in the pilot project compared to 7 percent of those whose cases actually ended up at trial under the current system.