By Anna-Leigh Firth

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has identified a common plea-bargain practice called “masking” as a serious and longstanding traffic safety issue. But most judges don’t even know what the term means, according to our monthly emailed survey.

Of 463 NJC alumni judges who responded to the question, 56 percent said they did not know what masking referred to.

Masking occurs when drivers of commercial motor vehicles are charged with offenses that could cost them their licenses—and often their livelihoods—but they avoid that fate through a plea bargains.

A typical plea bargain includes getting a prosecutor and judge to agree to changing a commercial motor vehicle citation to a non-commercial motor vehicle citation or ordering the driver into a diversion program such as a traffic-safety course. Such plea bargains have the effect of falsifying someone’s driving record and can leave dangerous drivers on the road.

Among the 44 percent of judges who knew about masking, 117 left comments.

Wrote one judge, anonymously, as was most often the case: “As a traffic magistrate, I know more about masking than I probably ever wanted to know. It is something that I always have to be mindful of when I receive dismissals and amendments to the citations to determine if masking is occurring.”

Pinellas County (Florida) Judge Susan Bedinghaus wrote, “Thanks to [an] NJC training I attended in 2018, I am now very aware of the ‘masking’ issue—and I try my best to share that information with my colleagues in Florida.”

A 2018 study by the American Transportation Research Institute confirmed the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s concerns about masking. The study found that traffic regulation violators were 63 to 114 percent more likely to be involved in crashes.

“It is bad for public safety and bad for judges who sometimes accept a negotiated plea without knowing what is going on,” commented Fulton County (Georgia) Judge Jane Morrison.

Another complained that, in addition to the safety issue, “it is a fraud on the Court when prosecutors reduce charges to non-moving traffic offenses that were not committed.”

* Each month the College emails an informal, non-scientific one-question survey to its more than 12,000 judicial alumni in the United States and abroad. The results, summarized in the NJC’s Judicial Edge Today, are not intended to be characterized as conclusive research findings.