Henderson officials investigate traffic ticket irregularities

Henderson officials said Tuesday they are investigating how city police had 96 traffic citations wrongly thrown out of court — including at least one ticket received by a friend or relative of a police employee.

Two City Council members, Debra March and Sam Bateman, called for more investigation to determine whether employees did anything wrong.

Bateman, a county prosecutor in his day job, said he was concerned at the possibility of someone getting special treatment in court.

“You need to be fair and impartial, and certain folks shouldn’t get a benefit that other folks don’t get,” Bateman said.

Both Bateman and March are seeking re-election this spring.

City Manager Jacob Snow said it’s too early to say whether any employees will be disciplined.

“We’ve got, at this point, more questions than we have answers,” Snow said Tuesday.

Police said Monday they had no evidence of officer wrongdoing, despite the audit’s finding that one ticket was voided for “Family/Friends of HPD,” meaning the Henderson Police Department.

But after further questions from the Review-Journal on Tuesday, police spokeswoman Michelle French said in an email: “The Family/Friends of HPD is not acceptable under our policy. The Police Department is looking into what happened.”

Under state law, dismissing a ticket for an unauthorized reason could constitute misconduct of a public officer, a felony punishable by a year in jail.

The audit found that police had tickets voided after they had been filed with the Henderson Municipal Court by simply sending a form to court staff. That’s illegal under state law, which says only a judge can throw a ticket out once it’s been filed in court.

The audit said the violations of law might have been inadvertent, since police policies did not make it clear that officers could void tickets only before they’re filed in court.

Police said they have already changed policies because of the audit’s findings. Officers who want to void tickets must now get supervisors’ approval. The city attorney’s office will then review the requests and decide whether to ask the court to void the tickets.

City Auditor Melissa Wright presented a seven-page report in a public meeting of the city’s three-member Audit Committee last week. The committee approved her draft, which will become the final version once a written response from the Police Department is received and appended in about two weeks.

Mayor Andy Hafen, who sits on the Audit Committee, noted the investigation found problems in less than half of 1 percent of the 37,256 citations police wrote between Oct. 1, 2012, and Sept. 30, 2014.

“Although a small number, we still expect this will be looked into and changes made,” Hafen wrote in an email.

Asked whether the City Council could hold a hearing on the issue, Snow said it’s possible. But he said the council has not held a hearing on an audit since he joined the city in 2012.

There are legitimate reasons for officers to have a ticket voided: an error made in writing the citation, for example, or a speeding driver having an extenuating circumstance such as a family emergency.

But when it came to the tickets the auditor pinpointed, officers didn’t offer much explanation. On each of the 96 forms used to void those citations, the reason was listed as “in the interest of justice,” usually with no elaboration.

That’s one of the suggested reasons for voiding a ticket listed in Police Department policies. But the audit recommended that police require officers to give more detailed reasons from now on.

On one of the 96 forms, the reason for voiding the citation was listed as “Interest of Justice Family/Friends of HPD.”

Contact Eric Hartley at ehartley@reviewjournal.com or 702-550-9229. Find him on Twitter: @ethartley.

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