By Jo E. Prout and
ALTAMONT — Local resident Jolene Kowalski pleaded not guilty Wednesday to three charges —driving an uninsured and uninspected vehicle with a suspended registration, and her charges were reduced to just driving an unregistered vehicle. After paying her fines, Kowalski left the courthouse with her husband and her attorney.
Kowalski told the village board in January that her arrest by Altamont Police officers on Dec. 12, 2012 in front of her 4-year-old son for a lapsed insurance policy was excessive. She and her husband, Josh Kowalski, questioned the quadruple police coverage Altamont receives from village, town, county, and state departments.
Altamont Police Chief Todd Pucci said then 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, Kowalski’s attorney, Michael McGarry told Village Justice Rebecca Hout this week. The lapse occurred while the Kowalskis were on vacation, he said, and they reinstated upon their return.
Although it had been reinstated after the 13-day lapse, a spokesman for the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles said last month, “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.
“We’re not arguing if my wife was in the right or the wrong about the car,” Kowalski said last month. “We’re upset about the behavior of the police.”
This week, Josh Kowalski submitted a letter about the case (see Letters to the Editor) and his views on the policies of and the need for the village police department.
Police videos show Kowalski was pulled over at 11:52 a.m. on Dec. 12 on Main Street after the patrol car’s plate reader signaled there was a problem. The arresting officer, Robert Traina, walked to her car window and retrieved her driver’s license, then returned to his car. The patrol-car computer showed that her vehicle was not inspected (the sticker had expired in September), was uninsured, and had a suspended registration. She could produce no proof of her insurance as required by law.
Pucci said Kowalski also could have been charged with breaking another law, not being able to produce proof of insurance, but that could not be pleaded down in court the way the charge for being uninsured can be. She was not charged with that.
Paperwork the police department still has from the patrol-car computer indicates that Kowalski had broken three laws.
The video shows the arresting officer, Traina, called Pucci and explained that Kowalski lives at 108 Main Street, just about 500 feet from where she was pulled over, and that she had “a little kid in the back” her 4-year-old son.
At 11:59, Pucci arrives on the scene. He explains to her what a misdemeanor charge is and allows her to call a friend to get her son. They wait until 12:02 when a woman walks up to Kowalski’s car to retrieve her son. Pucci opens the door for her and the son is calmly transferred to the waiting woman.
The tow truck arrives at 12:05.
Kowalski walks to the police car, carrying a round box. “Did I give you my key?” she asks, and answers herself, “Oh, it’s in my car.”
She is not handcuffed as she gets into the police car. She calls her husband from the police car at 12:06.
She walks into the police station, another video shows, and into the booking room, still uncuffed, still carrying the round box. She walks about in the booking room, unshackled, talking briefly with a man she has telephoned and gives him the box. He leaves at 12:16. She waits, moving about the room, as the police complete the paperwork on the three charges. She leaves at 12:28 with her paperwork; the police open the door for her on the way out.
According to Pucci, in 2012, the year Kowalski was arrested, the Altamont Police made 73 misdemeanor arrests; 36 of them, like Kowalski’s, were for having a suspended registration. “Those are all plate-reader hits. We got that from the DA’s office, compliments of David Soares,” Pucci said of the plate reader from the Albany County District Attorney’s Office.
He also asked, “How would all the other people we arrested feel if we let her go just because she lived in the village?”
On Wednesday, Hout asked Kowalski to pay a $100 fine and an $85 court surcharge.
“It was a standard reduction for someone with a clean driving record,” McGarry told The Enterprise.