Mistakes in traffic violation fines led to a recommendation of censure for Salina Town Court Justice Andrew Piraino.
Mistakes in traffic violation fines led to a recommendation of censure for Salina Town Court Justice Andrew Piraino. ()

A town judge who charged too much in fines or surcharges to nearly 800 traffic violators, while undercharging 150 others, should be censured, the Commission on Judicial Conduct recommended Tuesday.

Though the amounts of each of the overcharges and undercharges were nominal and due to inattention to detail or lax oversight, Salina Town Court Justice Andrew Piraino nevertheless allowed “inexcusable” mistakes that reflect poorly on the judiciary, the commission said.

“While isolated, inadvertent sentencing errors might be excused in a court that, like respondent’s, handles thousands of cases each year, the pervasive, repeated errors depicted in this record are plainly unacceptable,” the unanimous commission ruled in Matter of Piraino.

As both an attorney and a town justice with more than a decade of experience, the panel said Piraino had knowledge of the law from January 2006 and May 2008—when the errors took place—and familiarity with reference works like McKinney’s Consolidated Laws of New York and Magill’s Vehicle and Traffic Law Manual for Local Courts to help avoid such errors.

The delay in adjudicating the case before the commission was largely due to Piraino’s challenging the commission’s authority to sanction him for actions he insisted were not matters for its review. The Appellate Division, Fourth Department, ruled in November 2012 that the investigation against Piraino could go forward in Matter of John Doe v. Commission on Judicial Conduct, 11-02281 (NYLJ, Nov. 15, 2012).

Piraino, a Syracuse lawyer who specializes in employment injury and workers’ compensation cases, argued that his clerk had either imposed the wrong fines or that the judge himself had done so because he was “not paying attention” or “mis-memoriz[ing]” the law.

The commission said the bulk of cases involved seat belt or unlicensed driver violations, and that Piraino’s court imposed charges of $5 or $10 above the $50 maximum in fines and surcharges called for in the Vehicle and Traffic Law.

In all, the commission said it found 791 instances where Piraino’s court overcharged violators by $13,451 and 150 instances where violators were charged a total of $6,404 less than the statutory minimum.

The commission said there is no evidence Piraino intentionally overcharged offenders to make money for the town or was aware of the mistakes as they were being made.

Piraino blamed about 350 of the mistakes on his clerk.

He also attributed the errors to a high volume of tickets. With Salina located at the intersection of Interstate 81 and the New York State Thruway just outside Syracuse, the commission noted that Piraino and his fellow part-time justice in the town court each disposed of an average of about 760 tickets a month.

The commission said it was of “some concern” that Piraino had not proposed a plan to repay the motorists for the overcharges. The panel noted that in two similar cases, Matter of Banks and Matter of Pisaturo, judges moved to have their courts make restitution.

Commission administrator Robert Tembeckjian said Tuesday the commission has no authority to order judges to return overcharged fines.

In a 2011 interview with the Syracuse Post-Standard, Piraino said he agreed that those who were overcharged should be entitled to get money back, but he said he could not make refunds.

“The money’s already gone to the state, and it’s not coming back,” he said. “I wish there was something I could do.”

Tembeckjian said there was no indication that Piraino’s office charged inaccurate fines after May 2008.

Piraino has been a town justice in Salina since 1994. His current term expires at the end of 2017. He is paid $40,539 a year as Salina justice.

Neither Piraino nor his partner Aaron Mark Zimmerman, who represented Piraino before the commission, returned phone calls seeking comment Tuesday.