By Jo E. Prout
ALTAMONT — Resident Jolene Kowalski told the village board last week that her arrest by Altamont Police officers in front of her 4-year-old son for a briefly lapsed insurance policy was excessive. She and her husband, Josh Kowalski, questioned the quadrupled policing coverage Altamont receives from village, town, county, and state departments.
Altamont’s public safety commissioner, Todd Pucci, says that the state law is enforced consistently in Altamont and that Kowalski’s arrest was not excessive. He said the police did not shackle her as is typical with misdemeanor arrests.
Because the Kowalskis were late paying their car insurance, their policy had lapsed. Although it had been reinstated after 13 days, a spokesman for the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles said, “By law, the motorist must do something about that suspension. They must either surrender the plates to serve the suspension or, if they are eligible, they can pay a civil penalty.” He noted that Jolene Kowalski had not responded to communications from the DMV and had not paid the required penalty until the day of her arrest.
After Kowalski was stopped on Dec. 12 by an Altamont officer because his license-plate reader indicated the suspension, Pucci said, “I got called because she was frantic — crying and screaming. I let her use her phone to get someone to take her kid.”
Pucci told The Enterprise that her car could not be driven the few feet to her home because, according to the police records, the vehicle was uninsured.
Mrs. Kowalski told the village board that she volunteers in the community and that she chose to raise her family in Altamont.
“I am not here tonight to discuss why I was pulled over and arrested for a non-malicious violation by the Altamont Police Department on December 12,” Kowalski read to the village board, “but I would like clarification on the role of the Altamont Police Department in the community. I am using both my standing in the community, and the way I was treated in the incident that Wednesday morning as a reference to discuss the role of the village police department in the community.”
When the license plate on her car was picked up by the police car reader as having a violation, Officer Robert Traina pulled her over 500 feet from her Main Street home, while her son was in the backseat of the car.
Kowalski did not have an insurance card in her car and asked to get it from her home, she said. Traina called Police Commissioner Todd Pucci to assist him, and a tow truck to move Kowalski’s car 15 feet into the driveway of Auto Cosmetics.
“I understand that allowing someone 24 hours to provide proof of insurance is up to the discretion of the officer, and not a given course of action,” Kowalski said. “However, considering
my house was less than 500 feet away, I have no previous violations or criminal record, I was not posing a threat to the public, and, because my 4-year-old was in the car with me, I thought that on this occasion, the officer might have allowed me to walk to my house to provide proof of insurance.”
The officers allowed Kowalski to take her son into Bella Fleur so an acquaintance could care for him while they took her to the police station in their car.
“After questioning ‘why I was getting so upset, it is not like you
are going to go to jail,’ the chief later told me of the seriousness of a misdemeanor by saying, ‘You could do up to a year in prison,’ ” she said. “These decisions to treat me as if I was a criminal and a possible flight risk seemed extreme, given my house is less than a block from the police station and considering I was driving my son home from school. The treatment I received was excessive and outside the mission statement of the Altamont Police Department, which states ‘The Altamont Police Department values an ethical, caring, diverse community which is characterized by honesty, integrity, respect, fairness, empathy, equal opportunity, trust and civility.’”
Kowalski said that the village had previously under-billed her family for water services, and that they had immediately paid the back amounts, noting that the village, itself, had its share of clerical errors.
“What is the role of the Altamont Police Department?” she continued. “Shouldn’t they be taking an active role to get to know and help the 1,700 law-abiding members of this community?”
Mayor James Gaughan invited the Kowalskis to attend the budget meetings in March.
“I will be there, Mr. Mayor,” Josh Kowalski said.
According to the 2012-13 village budget, salaries for the commissioner and several part-time officers total $136,477, independent of maintenance and other operations expenses.
“They want to be thanked for not hand-cuffing her,” Kowalski said of the officers. “Why they wouldn’t extend a courtesy to go to her home to fix a glitch...it just doesn’t make sense.”
Gaughan said that the issue to be addressed was “the quality of treatment that you feel you received. The answer to these things is dialogue.”
Trustee William Aylward asked if the case were still before the court, and Kowalski said the case had been adjourned until Feb. 6.
After the village board meeting, Pucci approached Kowalski and shook his hand, but an argument ensued.
“I thought he was going to say he was sorry in some way,” Kowalski told The Enterprise later. “He got so aggressive to defend [himself]. The chief can’t show empathy in front of a 4-year-old, [who has] got to see his mother put into the back of a police car for a non-malicious violation. I can’t support someone like that.
“We’re not arguing if my wife was in the right or the wrong about the car,” Kowalski continued. “We’re upset about the behavior of the police. A chief is a leader. He should act like a politician.”
The Kowalskis said that some members of the police department are fine and say hello, making one feel safe.
“We want a personal feel with the police department,” Josh Kowalski said.
“We are consistent,” Pucci told Kowalski after the meeting.
“What if she got in an accident?” Pucci said to Kowalski. Explaining the reason for towing her car, he went on, “Do you know the liability we’re under?”
Pucci disputed the word “excessive,” he said, because it implied that excessive force had been used on Mrs. Kowalski.
Josh Kowalski insisted that Pucci should know them because of the small number of village residents in his full-time beat. He said that the family is aware of standard police practices because his wife’s grandfather, Joseph Dominelli, was the head of the New York State Association of Chiefs of Police, and the Rotterdam police station where he served is named after him.
Kowalski questioned Pucci’s having a second full-time job in Cohoes as keeping him from knowing Altamont residents as well as he should.
“Todd, you saved Altamont,” Kowalski said sarcastically about his wife’s arrest.
Pucci told The Enterprise that Traina had pulled her over because the license plate reader “dinged when she went by.” The department had to tow the car because it was uninsured, but he and Traina did not raise their voices or use any sort of excessive force, he said. They did not place handcuffs on her and he did not threaten her with jail, but explained the maximum sentence possible for the misdemeanor, Pucci said.
“They’ll plead it down, or we’ll plead it down,” he said.
They escorted her in the police car the same way they would have escorted others who could not drive themselves, he said.
Insurance companies are required by law to notify the insured of any cancellations in coverage, according to state Department of Motor Vehicles communications representative Nicholas Cantiello.
Insurance companies are also required to notify DMV of the cancellation no later than 30 days after the cancellation-effective date, he said. The insured is notified before DMV. If a policy is reinstated, DMV must be notified no later than seven days after the reinstatement action.
The Kowalskis told The Enterprise that the lapse in insurance resulted from a late payment, but that it was quickly reinstated.
On Sept. 1, the DMV was notified by Metropolitan Casualty Insurance Co. that the Kowalskis’ liability coverage had been dropped effective Aug. 29, Cantiello said in an e-mail. Fourteen days later, when new coverage had not appeared on the Kowalskis’ record, the DMV sent a letter to them, asking them to surrender their plates or provide proof of new insurance.
Two days later, on Sept. 14, the DMV was notified by the insurance company that the coverage had been reinstated on Sept. 11, for a lapse of 13 days total.
“The fact that the insurance was reinstated indicated she was re-insured on that date, but does not change the fact that there had been a lapse of coverage,” Cantiello wrote. A notice of suspension of the vehicle registration was automatically generated on Sept. 14, 2012, and mailed to the registrant, he said. The effective date of the registration suspension was Oct. 14, 2012, he said.
The law requires the motorists under suspension to either surrender their plates or pay a civil penalty, Cantiello wrote. “In this case, the penalty was $104. At no time did we receive any response to our communications from Mrs. Kowalski. Her registration suspension went into effect and was not cleared until the civil penalty was paid at the Schenectady Motor Vehicle Office on Dec. 12, 2012.”
“DMV never, ever sent us any information about that,” Jolene Kowalski responded through The Enterprise.
“In no way were we looking for any favor or anything like that,” her husband said. “We’re law-abiding citizens. We’re people who pay our bills. There was no courtesy extended. We’re just disappointed in that.
“They could have written a ticket,” Kowalski said. “It’s very excessive.”