- Associated Press - Friday, October 24, 2014

DETROIT (AP) - If you’ve ever spent an entire morning sitting in a packed courtroom to negotiate an outstanding parking or traffic ticket, you’ll appreciate a new system intended to nudge the courts closer to modern times.

The Online Court Project, funded by the University of Michigan and developed by Court Innovations Inc., allows citizens who’ve received minor civil infractions or traffic tickets to seek reduced charges or other solutions to their problems online, according to the Detroit Legal News ( http://bit.ly/1yf5jLP ).

The program is currently being piloted in Washtenaw County 14-A1 District Court, which covers Pittsfield Township. Eligible individuals simply go to the Court Innovations’ website at https://www.courtinnovations.com/14A1/traffic14A1/index, type in the information, and wait for the prosecutor and court decision-makers at the other end to examine their driving record and make a decision.

“The goal is to make the whole process easier for everybody on both sides, and at the same time, ensure that people are able to access the courts if they have concerns,” said Michigan Law Professor J.J. Prescott, who led the team that designed the new system. “That’s what courts are there for - to resolve disputes while at the same time making sure that people get a fair opportunity to have their concerns addressed.”

In-person meetings with a judge or magistrate are not only time-consuming, intimidating, and confusing - they’re often unnecessary, and requiring them can be counterproductive, if people decide not to use the courts as a result, Prescott said. And while litigants can already pay fines online, those with concerns about their case must go to court and face a tedious process that involves travel, parking and taking time off work.

“We’re providing a platform that allows litigants and decision-makers to negotiate in a very efficient and effective way. For many minor court issues, a face-to-face meeting with a judge or prosecutor simply doesn’t improve the outcome for either side. Just as ATM machines allow you to skip seeing a bank teller during business hours, technology can help streamline and improve much of what courts do,” said Prescott.

At 14-A District Court, Magistrate A. Thomas Truesdell approves or denies the litigants’ requests after the Pittsfield Township police do the same. Truesdell, who says he typically follows the recommendation of police, is a big fan of the new Online Court Project, which has been in place for six months now.

The bottom-line goal, he said, is to reduce some of the tickets down to “impeding traffic,” which adds no points and therefore, does not cause an increase in car insurance.

“We were doing this by having an officer - an officer, not the one who wrote the ticket - come out to the court on several different tickets and see if they’d reduce it down to impeding traffic,” he said. “But of course, you’re still paying for one officer to come out, and you’re still paying for court time.”

He said the idea to allow an electronic pre-hearing conference makes sense.

“It’s a win-win for everybody because number one, with the way budgets are these days, the police do not have to show up, which means they can do it from their office if they have to do anything,” he said. “It eliminates the court time which means we don’t have to put that on our docket. And it also frees up time for the magistrate, of course. It also has a convenient factor for the defendant.”

The ease of paying the fee online is another advantage for both the defendant and court, he said.

Tickets for traffic crashes will not be reduced because they affect other parties.

The three charges that are eligible - and in the vast majority of cases are granted a reduction to “impeding traffic” - are speeding, disobeying a traffic control device, and failure to stop at a stop sign. The project is funded by the University of Michigan’s Third Century Initiative grant program. The grant is being used primarily to develop the software and implement pilots, with the hope of bringing the service to courts throughout Michigan and beyond. Over the two-year grant period, the use of the scalable software will transition away from a pilot implementation and be supported by courts and stakeholders.

“Courts affect many thousands of people every day,” said Prescott. “Most people have spent at least some time dealing with a traffic ticket through what seems to be an antiquated process. Often, people can’t figure out what they’re supposed to be doing and they are unable to hire a lawyer to help them.”

The software is specifically designed for each court so that the magistrates, clerks, and judges have at their disposal the information they need to grant or deny each request.

“In the case of traffic tickets, a lot of this has to do with your record,” said Prescott. “Not surprisingly, when the software reveals a poor driving history, judges are much less likely to offer a reduction.”

Prescott, who is also the co-director of the Empirical Legal Studies Center and the Law and Economics Program at Michigan Law, noted that while appearing before a judge with expertise and discretion is necessary in serious cases, most of what clogs the courts now are minor infractions that can be better handled online.

He recalls a time he waited in court four hours to have his ticket reduced from “evading a traffic device” to “impeding traffic” after a 30 second negotiation with the prosecutor. Many people can’t take that time off from work to wait in court, and sometimes decision-makers can be influenced by irrelevant considerations, like a person’s appearance. An on-line request levels the playing field, he said.

The program is expanding in Bay County this month to include the online mediation of outstanding warrants. Prescott believes the program has great potential to reduce the thousands of outstanding warrants for individuals who inadvertently missed a court date for a minor infraction or didn’t have the money to pay a fine. In many cases, these individuals simply don’t know how to resolve their warrant, but are too intimidated to walk into a court, even if they could take a day off work, for fear of being arrested.

Later this fall, the Online Court Project will expand into Ypsilanti, Northfield Township, and Saline.

Truesdell sees only positive results.

“It’s worked wonderfully,” he said. “It’s a win-win.”

___

Information from: Detroit Legal News, http://www.legalnews.com/detroit

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