Lebanon police ask for ticketing powers

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 9/7/2020 8:36:15 PM
Modified: 9/7/2020 8:39:28 PM

LEBANON — Police Chief Richard Mello wants to change Lebanon’s City Code so that officers could issue tickets, rather than summoning people to court, for minor drug and alcohol offenses.

Mello pitched two amendments to the City Code last week, saying they could keep “hundreds” of cases out of the court system. Together, they would give officers the option to issue civil penalties to those found violating the open container law or in possession of drug paraphernalia, such as pipes and hypodermic needles.

A first offense would result in a $200 fine while subsequent offenses would receive a $300 fine, according to memos provided to the City Council. Currently, officers issue mandatory court summons for infractions, which are violation-level offenses.

Mello says the new rules, which would still allow people accused of wrongdoing to seek a court hearing, could alleviate a district court backlog and reduce the number of cases police prosecutors handle.

“All of those code violations, with the exception of like a parking ticket, have to go to court, every single one,” he said in a phone interview Friday. “So, if you’re adding hundreds of those cases to the docket every year, that’s a fair amount of time being spent by the court and the city prosecutor.”

The City Council on Wednesday scheduled public hearings to discuss the changes. Those are slated for Oct. 7 and a formal vote is expected to follow.

If approved, the new penalties would be effective immediately.

Mayor Tim McNamara says he supports the changes, which would “benefit everybody.”

“It benefits the courts in that it frees them up from these minor issues,” he said. “It certainly saves the police department and our prosecutor time, and in fact, I think also streamlines the process for the person being cited.”

“I don’t see a downside for anybody,” McNamara added.

Defense attorneys and criminal justice reform advocates also support the move, saying it could keep people from having to pay court fees and navigating the criminal justice system.

Former prosecutor Robert Sand, the founding director of the Center for Justice Reform at Vermont Law School, called the proposal an “incremental step in the right direction.”

“We have really excessively relied on the criminal justice system to respond to behaviors which, at worst, are self-harming behavior,” said Sand, a former Windsor County state’s attorney. “It’s an illogical approach.”

Sand said convictions can have “life-altering consequences” that follow people as they apply for employment and seek credit.

Arrests and court dates also lead to a loss of standing and reputation in many communities, he said.

“Reducing the harshness of any type of substance-abuse related misconduct, I think is a good thing,” Sand said.

Norwich-based attorney George Ostler said also favors Lebanon’s proposal, saying it “streamlines” the criminal justice system and lessens the penalties for low-level offenses.

“It strikes me as a good idea because it gives people the option if they want a court hearing they can request one,” he said of Mello’s proposal. “Otherwise, they can also just pay the fine without going through a formal arraignment.”

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.

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