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Published: Friday, 4/2/2004

Local drivers cited in accidents must go to court

BY CHRISTINA HALL
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Drivers cited in traffic accidents in Toledo, Ottawa Hills, and Washington Township won't be able to simply mail in their tickets and fines to Toledo Municipal Court any more.

Under a rule that went into effect yesterday - no April Fools - they must appear in court.

Toledo Municipal Court judges amended the rule in response to a new state sentencing law that began Jan. 1, President Judge Gene Zmuda said.

"Any victim on any misdemeanor has the right to be heard prior to the imposition of any case. We have to permit that possibility," he said. "In order for the court to comply with the new state law, we had to change our procedure."

A sampling by The Blade of suburban Lucas County municipal courts plus some regional places like Defiance and Swanton found judges have put a variety of rules in place in response to the law.

"You're getting a range of interpretations," said David Diroll, executive director of the Ohio Criminal Sentencing Commission. "Most are on the side of not requiring court appearances."

Although the law doesn't require the person cited in an accident to show up, Mr. Diroll said municipal courts can choose to do so.

Law enforcement officers who cite drivers in communities covered by Toledo Municipal Court will no longer give them a payout schedule, or a sheet listing the fines. Instead, they will be told to be in court within 10 days of the accident. If the defendant can't show up, an attorney can appear on their behalf. If the defendant or his/her attorney don't show, Judge Zmuda said a bench warrant could be issued for his/her arrest as it is now when a defendant doesn't appear in court.

Toledo police will hand accident victims a notice that includes the name of the person cited, case number, and the date, time, and court location where the defendant must appear. The victims can attend the hearing or submit a written statement to the court instead.

Washington Township Police Chief Chris Kaiser said his officers may notify victims verbally. Ottawa Hills Police Chief Bob Overmeyer said he may look at Toledo police's notices to see if his department is interested in doing something similar.

The changes are the result of a new state law designed to ensure victims in misdemeanor cases - such as a person whose vehicle is struck in the rear by another driver - a chance to be heard and to request damages separate from a civil proceeding. The mandatory appearances could result in a heavier caseload for Toledo Municipal Court.

Last year, the court had 8,000 to 10,000 traffic citations, Judge Zmuda said. He said the court will do what it can to accommodate the potential docket increase, including adding another docket hearing time if necessary.

Mr. Diroll said Franklin County Municipal Court is requiring victims and defendants to appear in court, creating long lines at courtrooms.

"A few days after [Franklin County Municipal Court made the change], we had snow. There were a lot of collisions. It was kind of a mess. Judges started blaming the statute," Mr. Diroll said. "They may have taken a fender-bender and caused a traffic jam at the courthouse."

Drivers who are not at fault in traffic accidents may choose whether to go to a hearing for the at-fault driver, according to Franklin County Municipal Court Judge Teresa Liston.

Richard Karcher, a defense attorney and acting Perrysburg Municipal Court judge, called the Toledo Municipal Court judges "enlightened" in their decision to amend their court rule.

"[Toledo] Municipal Court is doing what it must do to ensure a fair hearing for those who are injured or damaged in a traffic accident. How else would the court do this in a correct manner?" asked Mr. Karcher, who is the municipal court committee chairman for the Toledo Bar Association.

But the state law is coming under some criticism from those who represent plaintiffs, defendants, and insurance groups, prompting legislators and the Ohio Criminal Sentencing Commission to look at changes.

Mr. Diroll said two areas under review include not requiring defendants to appear in court in "pay-at-the-window" types of cases and putting limits on damage awards.

"What we had in mind [in regard to damages] were out-of-pocket losses that would be limited to hundreds of dollars, but there isn't a specific dollar amount in the legislation," he said. "But I think we're going to have to put some cap on it."

Defiance Municipal Court Judge John T. Rohrs, III, said those who are cited and don't have insurance are required to appear in his court. Initially, he had a handful of requests for damage hearings each week. The victims often became upset because they came to the defendant's initial appearance and another hearing was set regarding the damages.

"It was a real delay and time-consuming," Judge Rohrs said.

After changes were made in notices given to victims, fewer people have requested damage hearings. Judge Rohrs said the change was "a good idea in theory." But in practice, he said, "it's not practical at all."

Sylvania Municipal Court Judge M. Scott Ramey doesn't intend for cited drivers to be required to appear in court. Perrysburg Municipal Court officials aren't planning changes. The court requires people cited in a traffic accident to appear before a judge if they don't show proof of insurance.

In Fulton County Eastern District Court in Swanton, Judge Colin McQuade said most cited drivers will be required to appear in court, but he is reviewing cases on an individual basis.

His court has had cases in which drivers with proof of insurance who are involved in property damage accidents along the Ohio Turnpike are being allowed to pay out of court. Judge McQuade said his court hasn't held damage hearings for injury traffic-accident cases.

Maumee Municipal Court Judge Gary Byers said he will apply the state law to cases of vandalism or theft, but not to traffic cases.

"The new law gives courts the option to make restitution orders into civil judgements," he said. "I don't think that procedure is required or necessarily appropriate in traffic cases."

Judge Byers said many traffic accidents are complicated and everyone involved may be partly at fault. He said the traffic court process cannot evaluate accidents thoroughly enough to assign blame and award restitution, so people seeking damages for traffic accident injuries should take their complaints to civil court.

"To bring victims into traffic court is just to victimize them again in my opinion," he said.

Blade staff writers Mike Jones, Janet Romaker, and Rachel Zinn contributed to this report.

Contact Christina Hall at

chall@theblade.com or

419-724-6007.



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