Lawsuit filed against County Attorney Mike O'Connell over traffic court program
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – A Louisville man has sued County Attorney Mike O’Connell asking for a refund from a traffic program run by the county attorney’s office which was last week declared by a judge to be unconstitutional.
Matthew Vaughn’s lawsuit seeks class-action status for thousands of people who have been through the Drive Safe Louisville program, alleging that he and others deserve refunds because Jefferson District Court Judge Sean Delahanty “struck down” the program last week.
While Delahanty wrote that the online traffic program is unconstitutional, the county attorney’s office has said they will continue to operate Drive Safe Louisville, which allows traffic offenders to pay a fee, take an online course and get their case dismissed without paying court costs.
"We believe the program is absolutely constitutional," said Jessie Halladay, a spokeswoman with the county attorney's office.
Vaughn was charged with careless driving on July 13 and paid $179 to take the program, which he completed on Oct. 21, according to the suit. Two days later, Delahanty ruled the program was unconstitutional, in part because the law allowing it “negates or unreasonably limits” the authority of judges to use their own discretion.
“My argument is that he should not have been forced to pay $179 to a program that has been declared unconstitutional,” said attorney Liddell Vaughn, who is representing Matthew Vaughn and is also related to him. “The government has basically taken millions of dollars from the citizens of Jefferson County who have gotten traffic violations.”
The county attorney's office has made an estimated $1,275,000 through the program, according to Delahanty.
In a statement O’Connell said, “This complaint is inartfully drawn. My office looks forward to being heard on this matter in court.”
The lawsuit claims Matthew Vaughn and others were “induced to enroll in the unconstitutional Drive Safe Louisville” program to get charges against them dismissed.
At least one other Jefferson District Court judge has stopped agreeing to dismiss cases in which traffic offenders take the DSL program. Judge Stephanie Burke has told prosecutors she will honor Delahanty’s ruling that the program is unconstitutional.
Jessie Halladay, a spokeswoman for the county attorney’s office, said prosecutors are reviewing options on how to deal with cases in Delahanty and Burke’s courtrooms.
“We clearly feel there is some unjust treatment if only two judges are doing that,” she said.
Chief District Court Judge David Holton said he has not heard of any other judges who are not allowing the traffic program in their courts. And Holton said that while he respect’s Delahanty’s ruling and his position – and has some of the same concerns - he believes it only affects cases that come up in front of Delahanty.
“Far as I’m concerned, my cases are proceeding as formerly handled,” Holton said.
On Friday, Delahanty did agree to dismiss more than 2,300 cases in which prosecutors had already made deals to drop the traffic charge if citizens completed the program.
Delahanty had been the lone local judge holding out on agreeing to dismiss cases handled in traffic programs launched as revenue generators by county attorneys – even though the Kentucky Supreme Court has ruled they are legal.
In his ruling, Delahanty maintained that the statute passed by the General Assembly to allow the traffic programs "was rushed into implementation and is constitutionally flawed.
And Delahanty wrote that he is also concerned about ethical issues involving the program, including the Louisville Metro Police Department telling traffic offenders about Drive Safe Louisville. The county attorney’s office also sends letters to charged drivers when traffic citations are issued, telling them about DSL.
"The Court has serious concerns about the propriety of such actions by the County Attorney and persons acting on his behalf in contacting litigants directly despite being represented by counsel," according to the ruling.
So far, about 15,000 traffic violators have paid a fee, taken the Drive Safe Louisville program and had their cases dismissed without paying court costs, not counting those pending in front of Judge Delahanty.
O'Connell is one of more than 80 county prosecutors who have launched traffic schools to raise revenue for their offices. The money is distributed to several recipients, including the county clerk,.
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