If you asked someone who ever paid a stop-sign ticket in Delaware if she had a criminal record, she would probably answer with an emphatic and incredulous, "No!"  She would be dead wrong.  

Right now, guilt of a traffic offense like running a stop sign is an unclassified misdemeanor in Delaware, a classification that can have dire consequences for the driver. At the same time, the historical growth of such statutory “crimes” in our law has led to a development of confusing and burdensome criminal procedures in their adjudication and serious congestion of our criminal courts. 

The Delaware Supreme Court’s Committee on Speedy Trial Guidelines first recommended that legislation be pursued that will limit the use of criminal proceedings in “garden variety” motor vehicle violation cases in November 2000. Just as more than half the other states had realized, the time for decriminalization of Delaware’s minor traffic offenses had come.

Twelve states had moved toward decriminalization by reclassifying minor traffic offense as infractions by 1980. Seven more and the District of Columbia had done the same and declared traffic matters purely civil in nature by 1990. More have been added since then, but Delaware has lagged far behind.

Interestingly, as noted by at least one of those other states, widespread attention has been paid to alternatives for resolution in the civil courts – arbitration, mediation, private judges, etc. – but the effort needed to prioritize the use of judicial resources away from criminal traffic cases is far less emphasized and is being dubbed by its opponents here as a more sinister prospect.

Decriminalization’s opponents say that the civil traffic procedure recommended in House Bill 158 – a procedure that is the product of work by at least one Supreme Court committee, years of study of other civil traffic systems and a vetting of the very legislative language now in question during three different legislative sessions -- is an attack on our ideals of due process.

If we continue to define traffic offenses as "crimes," that is true. However, the well-documented and long-held public perception is that most traffic violations are not criminal acts. The bill turns that perception into reality. With that reality, along comes the true meaning of due process – the law must provide such safeguards as are commensurate with the class of case in question. 

The gloomy predictions of the opponents of House Bill 158 are many but the supporting proof nonexistent. They claim that the traditional burden of proof associated with these civil matters will ensure that more drivers are unduly found responsible for traffic infractions. If this is so, evidence of any such consequential increase should be found in the experience of states like Hawaii, Maine or Arizona when they converted to a civil system.

 Another complaint is that modified use of the rules of evidence, a standard found throughout the Delaware Code when defining civil or administrative proceedings, is unfair. This provision does not create a one-way street. As seen elsewhere, it allows the average person greater access to and more ready understanding of the applicable civil traffic procedures. For instance, one benefit derived from this change is the creation of informal mitigation proceedings that permit the driver to present his or her situation and if the court determines that the civil infraction did not occur, the court may dismiss the matter.

The argument regarding the evidence rules is coupled with the barely masked allegation that our Justice of Peace Court magistrates are ill-equipped to handle such proceedings.  These courts already handle these traffic and much more complex matters ably. It is a court ultimately supervised by the chief justice and is a valued part of Delaware’s nationally renowned judicial system.

The disadvantages of using any alternative adjudicatory body would be evident in places such as California, Illinois or the District of Columbia, which opted to have hearing officers within the executive branch (their motor vehicle divisions) and to extract civil traffic matters from the courts altogether.

If inevitable, higher auto insurance premiums, an increase in uninsured drivers and a greater state tax burden certainly would have been visited on Oregon, Nebraska, Washington, or Illinois when those states converted to a civil system.  The opponents’ claims are dramatic but wholly unsupported by any evidence of such consequences from the many jurisdictions that have decades of experience with civil traffic proceedings.    

So why can’t the decriminalization foes simply point to the nightmares each of these other states must have lived through when they went to a civil traffic system?  The truth is that the proposed legislation is a compilation of best practices from those who have tread this path before Delaware.

The bill seeks just determination of every civil traffic violation. In doing so, it strives to secure simplicity in procedure, fairness in administration and the elimination of unjustifiable expense and delay. Most importantly, it is consistent with the fact that these are civil, not criminal, violations of the traffic code.

The experience of these other states is that simplified hearing procedures in a judicial setting have enhanced public confidence in their systems, aided motorists in presenting their cases and allowed traffic hearings to be conducted more efficiently while assuring due process of law. It is well past time for Delaware to join this trend and enact House Bill 158.

Paul R. Wallace is the chief prosecutor for New Castle County in the Delaware Department of Justice.