By Lisa Rozner

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) – As most courts transition back to in-person hearings this month, New York state’s traffic court is planning to do the opposite and instead stay virtual.

It’s a cost-cutting measure for the state, and some say a money-grab measure from motorists.

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CBS2’s Lisa Rozner has learned this could be permanent. It’s a story you’ll see only on CBS2.

Taxi Driver Mohamadd Lagebbin says he got a speeding ticket trying to get to a service station fast when he had an emergency.

“I asked the question, ‘Why are you giving me ticket?’ Because my wheel was flat,” Lagebbin said.

He wanted to tell that to a traffic court judge and confront his accuser, the NYPD officer who wrote the summons.

“How they know why the police give the ticket me? I have to explain,” he said.

But he says it’s too complicated in virtual court, which is how the Traffic Violations Bureau, or TVB, has been conducting hearings since the pandemic began.

The Taxi Workers Alliance in Long Island City is filled with drivers who don’t have access to a computer or updated smartphone.

Assemblywoman Michaelle Solages says it hits the people who can afford it least.

“I see a lot of people who are, unfortunately, they are getting suspensions on their license because for instance, they couldn’t log on or got disconnected during the hearing process,” Solages said.

Some motorists, if they can get a reservation, can come to court and appear in front of a judge. But the police officer will not be there – officers are allowed to appear by telephone or video.

Traffic attorneys are calling it “TikTok justice.” They’re suing the state, arguing motorists are being denied the constitutional right to confront their accuser.

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“You can’t see their body language. You can’t see their demeanor, their facial expressions. There’s a lag often,” said Mattew Weiss, president of the Association of Motor Vehicle Trial Attorneys. “We are losing more cases.”

And as other courts reopen, the doors to traffic court could stay shut. CBS2 exclusively obtained a court document submitted by the state’s top traffic judge showing the DMV is “transitioning all TVB offices to virtual hearings,” that it “will result in savings to taxpayers” because the state can “consolidate TVB offices and cut expensive leases and security service contracts.”

“They can just get a lot of hearings virtually done, one after another after another, without having to take a whole day to be sitting around,” said CBS2 Urban Affairs Expert Mark Peters.

Web Extra: Read The Document (.pdf)

But motorists say now they often wind up waiting for hours online, and a phone call is the only way to reschedule.

“You call them, they don’t even pick up the phone,” said Edwin Fernandez.

Drivers can’t just show up in court and pay bond to reschedule, like they used to.  So no luck by phone means:

“They are manipulated to plead guilty. If they don’t plead guilty, then they, after 30 days, their license gets suspended and then have to pay $70 more to restore his license,” said Javaid Tariq, the cofounder of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance.

Solages and the Assembly’s transportation chair have written letters to the DMV commissioner, asking the courts be reopened, arguing that cutting expenses does not trump motorists’ constitutional rights.

DMV Stats show the number of guilty tickets disposed at trial in 2020 was less than 0.5% more than 2019.

A DMV spokesperson says “In the midst of the pandemic, the DMV is taking an efficient, common sense approach to conducting traffic hearings that is both safe and convenient for law enforcement and the respondents, some of whom do not even live in New York State. It is being implemented in a way that is fair and lawful, without any job loss, and we continue to evaluate and develop the process.”

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In response to the Assembly transportation chair’s letter, she added “The DMV acknowledges the concerns Assembly members Magnarelli and Carroll have raised regarding virtual TVB hearings. This process was established amid the pandemic as a means to conduct hearings safely and conveniently.  We continue to evaluate the process as we contemplate conducting hearings virtually in the future.”