Head to Head / Why Are the Traffic Courts Run Like a Marketplace?

Tomer Zarchin interviews Judge Moshe Gal.

Haaretz published yesterday the final outline of the awaited reform in the traffic courts, whose main feature is a focus on traffic offenders who have committed serious crimes. The traffic courts (considered the busiest courts in Israel ) open about 130,000 new files every year, and there are no more than 36 judges to handle them. The reform, which will see changes in legislation, will reduce the number of cases opened by the police and the state prosecution in the traffic courts, and will give priority to cases that cross "the red line" - those that result in serious offenses; thus, judges will be freed up for a day or a day and a half per week for a concentrated discussion of the heinous cases.

Judge Moshe Gal, director of the courts, why are the traffic courts run like a marketplace? When thousands of traffic tickets are issued every year, some of which should not have been brought to court, it is impossible to deal with the large number of files any other way. This marketplace shouldn't have been in the courts, but [dealt with] in the executive arm, so that a large percentage of the files should not have reached court, but have concluded with civil or administrative monetary sanctions.

Judge Moshe Gal - Emil Salman - August 30 2011
Emil Salman

So you aren't satisfied with the level of service for the citizen in the traffic courts?

Definitely not. I think that the burden on the traffic courts is unreasonable. It is more extreme that the overall burden on the courts. Traffic court judges should deal only with cases that represent a traffic danger.

In England, from which we drew our legal principles, there was criminal law and a civil law, and what was not included in the civil law reached the criminal court. Today, in Israel and the rest of the world, there's a transition to the idea that there are issues that should be concluded with civil and administrative sanctions, and not by means of a criminal proceeding like that in the traffic court. The Israel Securities Authority, for example, has successfully gone in that direction, and the courts constitute an administrative review of its decisions.

Which cases, for example, should not reach the traffic court but should be concluded by fines?

For example, a driver who's not insured. That is really not normative behavior; it endangers others, exposing them to physical and property damage, but it's not suitable for a criminal procedure in a traffic court, but should be examined in the context of administrative or civil sanctions, which can be reviewed in the court. That's how it is the world over. With the exception of offenses with a psychological basis or serious offenses that cause danger or habitual criminal behavior. All the rest shouldn't be in the traffic courts. The courts should be available for judging serious cases, because the message of immediate enforcement is important.

How much time will pass from the moment of committing the crime in a crossing a red line case until the start of the trial in these cases?

I believe it will be a few weeks.

Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman suggested a fivefold fine to be imposed on a driver who chooses to go to trial for a traffic offense rather than pay a fine, should the driver be found guilty in court. Aren't you afraid that by so doing, you will block drivers' access to the courts?

I don't think so. A person who chooses to go to court has to understand that there's a price if it turns out there was no justification for conducting a trial. There are people who come with complaints for no good reason - they see how overloaded the courts are and it's more convenient for them to delay the inevitable and go to trial rather than pay a fine, but they'll pay a price for that.

Did the police change their minds about their promise to reduce the number of cases that go to court since the agreement that was reached in the meeting with Minister Neeman?

The police didn't change their mind. They say they weren't referring to a clear plan but to a general one, a declaration of intentions. The objective is clear to everyone. Everyone understands the public interest and its importance. I as a court administrator don't sit with them and plan the traffic laws with them. They understood that if they do all the streamlining, the courts will be freed up. We say that with a certain number of cases, we can free up a day or a day and a half per week from the schedule of traffic court judges, beginning in February 2012, for dealing with egregious cases. If the judges aren't free, then we haven't accomplished anything.

Do you believe that expanding the legislation concerning serious offenders won't deter them, and will create a heavier court load?

Imposing more severe punishments does not in itself solve criminal behavior. All the studies show that people pay more attention to the fear of being caught than the punishment they'll receive, although punishment must be appropriate and proportionate. In the 1990s there was a plague of car thefts in Jerusalem. The legislator increased the penalty for car theft, and the penalties really were more severe. The result was that car theft increased first by 25 percent and then by another 20 percent. The problem was solved only when the police set up a unit for catching offenders. People looked at their chances of getting caught, and that's more of a deterrent than the level of punishment.

Let's talk about the practice of traffic courts of granting sweeping approval for plea bargains, some of them controversial, as happened for example in the case of Shahar Greenspan, the girl who remained paralyzed, and the driver who hit her received a ridiculous punishment.

In general, because of the case overload, plea bargains are a necessity. If they decide not to allow any more plea bargains, then we can close the system, or the number of judges has to be doubled or tripled.

In most cases the judge does not have all the tools necessary to be familiar with the entire case. I, as a judge, didn't see myself understanding more in assessing the public good in a case that reached a plea bargain than does the state prosecutor.

One of the problems is that traffic court judges, after a few years, want to escape to the Magistrate's Courts, which are considered more prestigious, and it's difficult to maintain the level of professionalism - how can that be solved?

Our new idea is that a judge will not be appointed a traffic judge as is the practice now, but rather as a Magistrate's Court judge, and will serve a term of five or seven years as a traffic court judge. We want to maintain professionalism and the level of the traffic court judges.