Post last updated at 5:26 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 6:
In hopes of avoiding numerous driver’s license suspensions, Douglas County District Court judges have dismissed about 940 traffic cases.
The circumstances of the batch dismissals are also mentioned in a pending disciplinary matter against Douglas County District Attorney Suzanne Valdez.
The traffic court docket, which generally brings dozens of people into one courtroom on Friday mornings, was placed on hold for the height of the pandemic. The DA’s office also continued cases on the docket during the delta variant wave in winter going into 2022.
The court in April of this year transitioned to using Odyssey, the online court records portal now in use nearly statewide. That transition brought to light several hundred outstanding traffic citations dating as far back as 2003, Douglas County District Court Chief Judge James McCabria said in emailed responses to questions.
“The Office of Judicial Administration alerted us that hundreds of people would be in jeopardy of having their driver’s licenses suspended unless some action was taken,” McCabria said.
McCabria pointed to a state statute that says a person’s driving privileges must be suspended if the person does not appear in court and pay all fines, costs, and penalties within 30 days of mailing notice.
“As a court, we were concerned whether current addresses existed for defendants and whether witnesses and evidence would still be available. And then there are legal bars related to statutes of limitation or constitutional infirmity for lack of prosecution,” McCabria said.
A search of court records for 20 of the cases, selected at random from the list, showed an assortment of infractions and misdemeanors such as speeding, driving while suspended, driving without a seat belt or without liability insurance, registration violations and defective tail lights. For perspective, statistics McCabria provided from the court clerk’s office show that there were 2,916 traffic cases filed in 2021 and 2,842 in 2022.
Approximately 585 of the dismissed cases, or nearly two-thirds, were from 2021 or older, McCabria said.
The notices of hearings that Pro Tem Judge Blake Glover disseminated “clearly stated the court’s concern with doing nothing – all these individuals would be at risk to have their driver’s license suspended when no steps were taken to keep them apprised of their future court dates or the consequences of their past failures to appear,” McCabria said.
The formal complaint filed in an ongoing disciplinary case against Valdez alleges that “On May 11, 2023, a news article was published about this disciplinary proceeding and immediately following it, Mr. (Deputy District Attorney Joshua) Seiden told Judge Glover that the District Attorney’s Office did not feel that they needed to cooperate in the case review ‘because of this,’ and Mr. Seiden slid a copy of the news article across the desk to Judge Glover.”
However, both McCabria and Cheryl Cadue, spokesperson for the DA’s office, said that during the May 11 meeting, Valdez agreed that the DA’s office would assist with the review of the backlogged cases.
If certain criteria were met, cases could be dismissed, Cadue said.
“If someone was cited for Driving While Suspended, we would want to know why that individual’s driving privileges were suspended. Nonpayment of fines or fees would be viewed very differently than suspension for an alcohol related driving event,” Cadue said in emailed responses to questions. “Additionally, if someone has a commercial driver’s license, those matters have to be looked at more closely, as well as matters involving accidents.”
It wasn’t until a subsequent meeting in early June that Seiden told Glover the DA’s office would no longer participate in the review, McCabria and Cadue said.
“Very quickly, the District Attorney’s Office determined that under the present circumstances – lists of case numbers and names – it would be a very laborious undertaking to conduct due diligence on this large number of cases. The judges wanted this done within 2-3 weeks,” Cadue said. “During a subsequent meeting, Mr. Seiden informed Judge Glover that the District Attorney’s Office was no longer willing to conduct this research into the cases, but that the District Attorney’s Office would not do anything to impede the court if the judges came up with a solution.”
“… Additionally, Judge McCabria’s quote in a May 11, 2023 Lawrence Journal-World story regarding his disciplinary complaint against District Attorney Valdez created unnecessary discord,” Cadue said. “The District Attorney’s Office was already conducting additional work to assist the court with a problem the District Attorney’s Office did not create, so it was especially discouraging to receive negative treatment from the court in the local press.”
However, McCabria said his quotes in the May 2023 article were actually from a response he sent in spring of 2021, “which essentially amounted to not commenting,” he said Friday. “I had no idea the May article was going to run.”
After learning that the DA’s office would not conduct the review, the court clerk’s office and Judge Glover’s office “devoted untold hours reviewing cases to make sure no driving under the influence cases or cases involving a potential victim were included in the cases slated to be dismissed,” McCabria said.
During three hearings in August, Assistant District Attorney Deanna Knapp indicated the state was standing silent on the dismissals because they were not sure whether there were cases on the list that involved restitution or commercial driver’s licenses, according to information Glover provided.
Outside of those hearings, the DA’s office did object to the dismissal of three cases, and those were not dismissed, McCabria said.
Cadue said the DA’s office works to resolve traffic matters daily by taking calls, responding to emails, and handling walk-ins, and that the office staffs each traffic docket with multiple attorneys and interns in an effort to process the matters as efficiently as possible. She said many of the backlogged cases were from the prior administration, filed before Valdez took office in January 2021.
“With respect to the backlog, the District Attorney’s Office is unclear as to whether many of those receiving citations had their court dates moved and were ever given notice. In the event someone was not given notice of their rescheduled court date, the District Attorney’s Office could not in good faith ask for a bench warrant or for some sort of measure that would trigger suspension of driving privileges,” Cadue said. “It is not the duty of this office to provide notice of rescheduled court dates.”
There was a similar batch dismissal of cases in 2019, McCabria said: “That was the result of a request of the court to the district attorney’s office to purge those cases that the district attorney agreed were no longer susceptible to prosecution due to various delays in the timely prosecution of the cases.”
If you have a traffic case in Douglas County District Court and want to check on its status, you can register for an account on Odyssey by visiting prodportal.kscourts.org/ProdPortal/ and search for yourself or your case number. You can also use the computers in the court clerk’s office in the basement of the Judicial and Law Enforcement Center, 111 E. 11th St.
Update, 5:26 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 6: Valdez’s answer to the disciplinary complaint, filed near the end of the day Tuesday, stated that “Mr. Seiden met with Judge Glover to inform him that the District Attorney’s Office would suspend work on this project, as the quote from Judge McCabria created unnecessary discord. Mr. Seiden showed a printed copy of the article to Judge Glover, who said he had not read the story.” (Read more about the answer in this article.)