DOUBLE SPRINGS, ALABAMA – A Winston County judge threw out 220 traffic tickets this week after he and the defendants showed up for court but had nowhere to meet.
The only courtroom large enough to handle the crowd was in use by another judge, court officials said.
Winston County District Court Judge Michael Newell ordered that all pending traffic cases on his Tuesday docket, except DUI cases, be dismissed. They included tickets for speeding, driving without a license or with a suspended or revoked license, driving with switched and expired tags, driving without seat belts, and one for racing on a highway.
One man had eight tickets dismissed for various traffic infractions stretching back to 2006.
Newell said that, if a defendant had arrived late to court, he would have held the person accountable. Because of the courtroom mix-up, people with tickets who showed up on time Tuesday were being made to wait, which didn’t seem fair to Newell.
“I should hold myself to the same standard and that’s what I was trying to do,” Newell said. “I feel like I did what was appropriate in light of the situation we encountered on Tuesday.”
By the time the cases were dismissed, the defendants, some of whom were missing work, had been held up more than an hour, he said.
People who had pleaded guilty before Tuesday by paying their fines did not get their cases dismissed.
Winston County Circuit Court Judge John Bentley took the blame for the scheduling conflict. “If anyone is to blame for this stuff, it’s the presiding judge and that’s me. … The buck stops here.”
Newell had scheduled traffic court for 9 a.m. Tuesday at the county courthouse in Double Springs. That’s the same time Winston County Circuit Court Judge Lee Carter was beginning scheduled probation revocation hearings.
Carter was handling both his and Bentley’s probation revocation dockets Tuesday because Bentley was out of town, Bentley said. The revocation hearing docket had been set since September, and Bentley didn’t realize Newell had scheduled traffic court that day, he said.
Bentley said he wasn’t going to criticize Newell’s decision to dismiss the cases rather than delay them until another day.
“He felt that was the proper thing to do and I support him 100 percent,” Bentley said. “He’s the judge of that court and I’m not.”
The Alabama Administrative Office of Courts was notified of the traffic case dismissals, an official with that agency said.
“The chief justice understands from talking with presiding judge John Bentley that this incident was a result of a scheduling error with the one courtroom in Winston County and that the chief justice has been assured by Judge Bentley that he is working on this issue and that it will not happen again,” said Keith Camp, a spokesman for the Administrative Office of Courts.
One thing that will help keep scheduling conflicts down in the future is that Winston County officials are working to build a courthouse annex, Bentley said.
Winston County Administrator Joanie Wright said the county has borrowed about $6.5 million for construction. An area next to the courthouse has been cleared and prepared for construction, and county officials are reviewing plans for the annex that will include space for the additional courtroom, new jail, and district attorney and circuit court clerk offices.
“We want it as bad as they do,” she said.
Birmingham News – Kent Faulk