You can speed but you can’t hide

ANCRAM—Remember that speeding ticket you got for putting the pedal to the metal back in the 1990s? Remember how you never went to court or paid your fine?

Well, if you got that ticket in Ancram, you’re about to be reminded about it.

At the September 18 Town Board meeting, Town Court Clerk Ruth Wittlinger’s update on court activities included mention of a housekeeping project she is working on.

Mrs. Wittlinger, who is also the deputy town clerk, was taking the meeting minutes in the absence of Town Clerk Monica Cleveland.

Supervisor Art Bassin called the project delving “into old dead letter files,” but Mrs. Wittlinger said in a phone interview this week it’s more specifically about “records management.”

It seems one corner of the storage closet at Town Hall was on its way to becoming the final resting place for a heap of court documents. Just like any household, the court is required by law to keep its documents for set periods of time, Mrs. Wittlinger said by phone: criminal case records for 25 years, bank statements and traffic cases for 6 years.

But as near as she can figure, no one has rearranged the dust on these closet-dwelling records for at least a quarter century. Mrs. Wittlinger has served as court clerk for the past 15 years working alongside her husband, Town Justice George Wittlinger, who has also served that long. Bob Wilcox is the other town justice and Colleen Lutz, the deputy court clerk, both of whom have been at their posts for less time.

“If we were ever audited it would not be a good sign that we have not done anything with the records for such a long time,” Mrs. Wittlinger noted.

On her mission to bring order to the court closet, Mrs. Wittlinger is discovering a bunch of stuff that can be catalogued in some modern space-saving way and then destroyed. She is also finding a treasure trove of outstanding traffic tickets, as many as 400 of them, that have never been answered or were answered but the fines never paid.

The free ride is over.

These non-seatbelt-wearing, stop-sign-ignoring, speed limit-defying scallywags and even some higher level lawbreakers who are guilty of misdemeanor driving with a suspended license (about 300 of them) are now receiving letters telling them they better pay up on these long overdue fines or their records will be turned over to the state Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), which means they are headed for bigger problems down the road.

Supervisor Bassin said at the meeting, “Imagine getting a letter about a speeding ticket you got 12 years ago, saying: If you don’t pay up, we’re going to pull your license.”

Mrs. Wittlinger said by phone that the court can run the names of New York state drivers electronically through DMV files to find a current address in case an offender has moved.

The old fines start conservatively at $100 to $150 and carry a state-mandated surcharge of $35 to $93.

Mrs. Wittlinger has been working on the project since May and has so far collected about $3,000 in back fines, a windfall for the town, even though the fines have not been accruing interest.

The reaction from the letter recipients has been to pay the fine and be done with it, continue to do nothing, or to call the court and scream, “I’ve paid this!” said Mrs. Wittlinger.

Her response to the last reaction is to advise them that the burden is on them to prove they resolved the fine because records show it is unpaid. So far no one has produced a paid receipt.

“I’ve been here 15 years,” said Mrs. Wittlinger, noting she gives people a receipt for anything they give her. “I’m not saying we’re perfect, but everything is recorded somewhere.”

Mrs. Wittlinger is working on the old ticket project by herself while Deputy Court Clerk Lutz tends to current court business, which just keeps on coming.

The coldest case file Mrs. Wittlinger has found dates back to 1978. Though the case is closed, the paperwork remains and has to be catalogued or characterized in some way before she can submit a form to the state Office of Court Administration (OCA) asking permission to destroy the paperwork. Acceptable methods include burning or shredding, she said.

In other court related business, Mrs. Wittlinger said the OCA is no longer paying the 2.99% interest fee on the court’s credit card transactions. Banks or credit card companies slap a charge on merchants when patrons pay with a credit card and they also charge the court when offenders pay their fines with plastic, explained Mrs. Wittlinger. Since the OCA won’t be picking up the tab anymore due to its own budget constraints, defendants will have to.

The Town Board meets next Thursday, October 16 at 7 p.m.

To contact Diane Valden email .

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