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For as long as most Marylanders can remember, motorists who were issued a traffic ticket would automatically be scheduled to have their day in court. Unless they paid up in advance, it was assumed they would tell it to the judge.

That would change if the General Assembly passes a bill that is receiving overwhelming support from Maryland police departments for its potential to cut into the time officers wait in court to testify against defendants who don’t show up.

The bill, endorsed by the O’Malley administration, would reverse the current presumption that motorists prefer to appear in court. Instead, the person who receives a traffic citation would have to request a trial. The theory behind the measure is that those who ask for a day in court will be more diligent about showing up than those who are merely notified to appear.

Chief Marcus Brown of the Maryland Transportation Authority Police says the measure holds the potential for “millions of dollars of savings” for agencies statewide. Police officials say the savings could help plug holes in budgets blown by overtime for the hours officers spend in traffic court.

Anyone who has been to a Maryland traffic court is familiar with the scenario: The judge calls name after name on the docket, and time after time nobody answers.

According to the District Court of Maryland, out of the roughly 1.2 million traffic citations resolved in the state last year, roughly half ended with the fine being paid without a court appearance, one-quarter were taken to trial and another quarter were disposed of outside a courtroom. But in addition to those cases, there were 343,387 cases in which the traffic citation recipient failed to keep a court date. (One defendant could account for multiple cases.)

The bill would leave much of the current system intact. Like now, a defendant could still choose to mail in the fine, which goes on the record as a guilty plea. If the ticket recipient fails to respond to a summons, the court can still issue a warrant or – much more commonly – notify the Motor Vehicle Administration so the agency can send a notice of driver’s license suspension.

Under the proposed system, if the defendant wants a day in court to plead not guilty or offer an explanation, he or she could check off a box on the ticket and send it to the court to request a trial date. Upon receiving the request for trial, the court would notify the defendant and officer when to appear – a system similar to that currently used for tickets generated by red-light and speed cameras.

According to proponents, at least 47 states require defendants in traffic cases to request a court date.

Source: The Baltimore Sun