If It Walks Like a Cop; Old Field and Patchogue Constabularies Are Accused of Illegally Operating as Police Forces
By JOHN RATHER
Published: July 25, 2004
HIS roof lights were flashing and he wore a blue uniform, and when he pulled William Walcott over on West Meadow Road in Old Field on a February afternoon four years ago Mr. Walcott assumed he was dealing with a police officer.
”He comes strutting over with his hand on his gun, and he wants my license and registration,” said Mr. Walcott, now 73, a retired real estate broker who was driving home to Stony Brook when he was stopped. ”I say ‘What for?’ And he says, ‘You were speeding,’ and I say, ‘I was approaching a four-way stop sign. How could I be speeding?”’
It did not occur to Mr. Walcott or hundreds of other drivers ticketed in the exclusive, upper-income village over the years that the person at their window might not really be a police officer at all but an employee of a village government that knowingly maintained a constabulary that was illegally stopping motorists on public roads and issuing traffic tickets.
That, at least, is the central charge in a class action lawsuit that a Smithtown lawyer, Jonathan C. Scott, filed in State Supreme Court in Riverhead last month against the village. ”It’s all so sophisticated and these people are so close in appearance to police that most motorists don’t have any idea that it’s a village holding itself out as having a police force when they don’t have any right to do that,” Mr. Scott said.
In the lawsuit against Old Field, in which Mr. Walcott is one of four named plaintiffs, and in a similar class action against the Village of Patchogue, where village constables give out traffic tickets, Mr. Scott argues that both villages irrevocably signed over policing powers to the Suffolk County Police Department in the late 1950’s when they voted to become part of the county police district. Mr. Scott has also filed a federal complaint making similar accusations against the Village of Belle Terre.
For village constables or code enforcement officers to hand out tickets, the suits say, crosses the line into police work reserved to the county force, which alone has the power to enforce state vehicle and traffic laws.
If, in a decision that is probably still months away, a judge allows the class actions to proceed, the villages could be obliged to reimburse all motorists who got tickets and paid fines since 1994, as far back as the state statute of limitations allows. The two state suits also seek $8 million in damages from each village.
Officials in the two villages said last week that they had done nothing wrong and had little concern about the suit. In March, Judge Arthur Spatt of United States District Court in Central Islip dismissed charges Mr. Scott attempted to bring against Old Field under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations statute.
”It would seem to me that after losing the case in federal court he is now trying to bring another action in state court in order to seek publicity,” said Cary Staller, the mayor of Old Field and a lawyer. ”If you compare both complaints they are essentially the same.”
Mr. Staller said the village employed about a dozen part-time code enforcement officers. ”Everything they do is legal,” he said. He said that while the village officers had given out tickets in the past they no longer did, but that he could not recall when or why ticketing ceased. ”There was just no need for it,” he said.
”I don’t think it was ever that huge an issue,” he said. ”I think Jonathan Scott is trying to make it into a big issue.”
Lee Snead, the Patchogue village attorney, said the village code gave the power to enforce traffic laws to its constables, who number about 18. ”To my understanding there has not been any directive stating that they do not have the power, nor has a court of competent jurisdiction told the village that it doesn’t have such enforcement powers,” Mr. Snead said.
But Mr. Scott said the villages had been put on notice repeatedly over the years that they were acting illegally, and two top Suffolk officials corroborated his assertion.
Alan Schneider, the county’s personnel director and the official empowered to oversee civil service law for all jurisdictions in Suffolk, confirmed that the county had cautioned Old Field to stop handing out tickets.
”They should not be doing what they are doing,” he said. ”They are enforcing the state vehicle and traffic laws, which is only supposed to be done by Suffolk County police officers.” Asked if it was an illegal act for a village constable or code enforcement officer to pull over and ticket a motorist in either village, Mr. Schneider replied, ”That’s correct.”
John McElhone, the chief of patrol for the Suffolk County Police Department, said villages in the police district that ticketed went beyond legitimate code enforcement and were a concern.
”I am uncomfortable with that,” he said. ”Code enforcement is supposed to be enforcing the town or village code, and in the case of the villages of Old Field and Patchogue, they voted in the county police department and the county charter says we are the police agency for those areas.”
”Code enforcement in most jurisdictions is about zoning, noise, unleashed dogs and things like that,” he said. ”When they start doing vehicle and traffic stops and cover it by saying they are enforcing the village code, I think are encroaching onto an area of policing.”
Mr. Scott cited a provision in the state vehicle and traffic law that appeared to prohibit local governments from duplicating the law in local laws such as village codes.
”The state has a traffic code which sets all the regulations, and there is an explicit provision that says as a matter of state law no lower level of government may duplicate the provisions,” he said.
Even though traffic tickets written by the village employees in Old Field and Patchogue were invalid, Mr. Scott said, there was a high probability the State Department of Motor Vehicles would suspend a driver’s license if village officials reported the driver had failed to answer an appearance ticket or pay a fine.
Joseph Picchi, a D.M.V. spokesman, declined to confirm or deny that the state accepted the validity of tickets issued by Old Field or Patchogue as valid. ”D.M.V. will accept a ticket that has an appropriate number that is assigned by law enforcement and we will suspend a driver’s license if that ticket is not answered,” he said. But he would not say whether either village had the type of numbers he referred to.
But the lawsuit against Old Field charges that the village continued to use a law enforcement agency number on its tickets even though the state police and the federal Department of Justice retired the number in 1986 after a Justice Department investigation found that the village constabulary was not an authorized law enforcement agency.
Mr. Schneider, the Suffolk personnel director, said Old Field and some other villages complained that they needed more traffic enforcement. ”I don’t want to defend Old Field, but some of these villages have been saying they can’t get the coverage that we need from the Suffolk County Police Department, so in the interests of their local taxpayers they have been trying to cut down on accidents and speeding, etcetera, etcetera, by handing out traffic violations.”
Mr. Scott suggested that Old Field might be trying to discourage outsiders from entering the village. ”That is one of the issues we are going to be looking at in the litigation,” he said. ”Old Field is a very expensive, exclusive area, and part of what may be driving the continuation of this private police force is a desire on the part of certain residents to exclude what they consider to be people from lower social status or economic group.”
Mr. Staller, the Old Field mayor, said this was both untrue and not mentioned in court papers filed by Mr. Scott. ”We don’t try to keep people out,” he said. ”It’s not a gated community.”
Mr. Scott suggested a different dynamic might be at work in the Patchogue, a blue-collar area. ”You have a fairly large number of non-primary-English speaking people that are in and about in the Village of Patchogue,” he said. ”If you were to go to their village justice court and watch the proceedings, you would see that there are large numbers of Spanish-speaking people and people for whom English is not their primary language who are being given tickets by constables.”
Mr. Snead, the village attorney, said Mr. Scott was misinformed. ”He hasn’t pleaded that and it is not in fact happening,” he said. ”The village has a large Hispanic population so it is not uncommon that some or even a great number of defendants would be Hispanic.” Mr. Scott’s suit against Old Field charges that three of the four plaintiffs faced fines of up to $150 after being ticketed for driving 41 miles an hour in an area of the village with a speed limit of 30 miles an hour. The fourth plaintiff was fined $77 for failing to come to a full stop at a stop sign. All paid fines to the village justice court.
Mr. Walcott, one of the plaintiffs ticketed for speeding, said he initially pleaded not guilty and went to the village court three times to appear before a village justice. ”They wouldn’t hear my case,” he said. ”I sat there three hours each night watching the village clerk collecting money from people.”
On his third visit to court, Mr. Walcott said, a lawyer he believed represented the village eventually suggested that he plead guilty to a lesser offense of not wearing his seatbelt, even though Mr. Walcott contends he had been wearing it.
”The only way I was going to see the judge was by pleading guilty,” he said. ”But when I pleaded guilty, the judge wasn’t interested in hearing anything. I wanted to fight it but it was a stacked deck as far as I am concerned.” He paid a $50 fine.
Looking back, Mr. Walcott said he felt he was the victim of what he called a village moneymaking machine. ”It was highway robbery,” he said. ”They had the police car, the gun, the uniform, so you go along with it.”