Virtual Training Associates (VTA) concerns itself with training groups on ethics, sports ethics, sexual harassment prevention and similar topics. As president of VTA, I am always fascinated when a virtual issue becomes an ethical issue. Such a collision (sometimes literally) is occurring in New York State as we speak.
New York State Traffic Court
At the start of the lockdown to control the spread of COVID-19, New York State took its traffic court system virtual. People appear before a judge virtually, plead their case, get an opinion from the judge, pay their fine – or not and go on their way.
As the vaccines have become more widespread and transmission has slowed, courts are re-opening, same for traffic court. New York State contends that going virtual with traffic courts is a big money saver in a state strapped for cash. However, motorists are screaming foul, saying that it is nothing more than a money grab.
Though the DMV Commissioner says the number of convictions has hardly changed from pre-pandemic times, groups such as the Taxi Workers Alliance and other professional drivers are arguing they cannot get justice.
The professional drivers claim that now, instead of showing up at the appointed time and/or paying a clerk, they often have to wait online for hours to get heard – if they can. If they wait for hours online, they can’t work. It is a vicious cycle. If they miss a virtual court date, the fines increase.
Taxi and limousine drivers are frequently immigrants on the verge of bare-bones financial survival. They cannot afford computers or expensive smartphone devices. But worse, they cannot face their accusers to offer an explanation.
Indeed, the police officers who have written them up, no longer have to face them. They literally phone it in. Defense lawyers argue that in face-to-face meetings, they used to observe body language or facial expressions in a serious case. They can often no longer do that.
One driver interviewed by a New York City television station gave an example where he was ticketed and fined where he was rushing a passenger to an emergency situation. He wanted to give an explanation in front of a judge to explain to both the judge and police officer why he committed the traffic violation. He was not able to at least put up a proper defense.
Despite the protests from the various driver coalitions, New York State has no plans to go from virtual back to in-person traffic court. They said they would “review it,” at a later date which, as most of us know is simply a delaying tactic.
This sets up an interesting – and troubling series of ethical issues.
The very foundation of our legal system allows the defendant (in this case the driver) to face their accuser. Whether ultimately guilty or innocent, virtual or in-person, we should all have our day in court. But suppose the accusers (the police officers writing up the tickets) are not available? Further, suppose the police officers simply make a call and refuse to argue the matter?
What if the driver cannot afford to wait for hours in front of a computer in anticipation of their (indefinite) turn?
Why are all of the other courts opening, but not traffic court? It is difficult to imagine the other courts as being huge money-makers while the traffic courts are said to remain a drain.
In terms of ethics, could there not be an in-person, virtual surrogate representing the police department? The surrogate could at least listen to reasonable explanations – and be empowered to reduce fines.
Virtual technologies are constantly evolving and improving. If the State of New York refuses to at least open traffic courts to in-person “trials,” why are they unable to improve the virtual experience so as to allow accusers to be faced by the accused in the presence of counsel?
Technology will always change, but ethical behavior is unchanging. The State of New York in weakening the defenses of the accused, is failing to recognize this.
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