For­mer de­tec­tive leads can­di­dates for Cheek­towaga bench

State doesn’t re­quire law de­gree

The Buffalo News - - CITY&REGION -

The im­age of the law-an­dorder judge in Cheek­towaga has a long his­tory.

In the 1990s, when Jus­tices Thomas S. Kol­bert and the late Ron­ald E. Kmiotek Sr. were on the bench, they be­came well-known for hand­ing down max­i­mum sen­tences for mall larce­nies.

“I’m tak­ing the hard line,” Kol­bert said in 1992. “I’m send­ing out a mes­sage to peo­ple in­volved in crime. You come be­fore me, pack your tooth­brush. You’re go­ing to jail.”

A quar­ter of a cen­tury later, amid calls for town court to get tough on crime and on crim­i­nal de­fen­dants, Cheek­towaga Democrats this year en­dorsed Po­lice De­tec­tive David M. Stevens, a 29-year po­lice vet­eran, for town jus­tice. If he is elected in Novem­ber, that would mean both town ju­rists would be for­mer po­lice of­fi­cers. Jus­tice James Speyer is a for­mer as­sis­tant po­lice chief and 31-year law en­force­ment vet­eran who re­tired from the de­part­ment in 2018.

Speyer, 59, and Stevens are not li­censed at­tor­neys, but New York State al­lows non­lawyers to pre­side over lessse­ri­ous cases like ve­hi­cle and traf­fic mat­ters, small claims, evic­tions, civil mat­ters and crim­i­nal of­fenses.

The state does not re­quire town and vil­lage jus­tices to have a law de­gree. All that is re­quired is the ma­jor­ity of the vote and a week­long train­ing pro­gram ad­min­is­tered by the Of­fice of Court Ad­min­is­tra­tion, said Tanja Si­rago, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of New York State Mag­is­trates As­so­ci­a­tion.

“My de­gree is the 29 years of law en­force­ment ex­pe­ri­ence,” said Stevens, 53. “Be­ing

out on the streets, I know what Cheek­towa­gans want – a fair and con­sis­tent judge. I will hold peo­ple ac­count­able.”

It’s not clear how un­usual it would be for a com­mu­nity to have two for­mer po­lice of­fi­cers on the bench. But Si­rago said about 60 per­cent of the 1,832 town and vil­lage jus­tices in the state out­side of New York City are not at­tor­neys. And the most com­mon pre­vi­ous oc­cu­pa­tion for those ju­rists is in law en­force­ment.

“To­day, nearly 200 town and vil­lage judges across New York are for­mer law en­force­ment of­fi­cials,” she said. “As pub­lic ser­vants who un­der­stand the le­gal sys­tem and have strong con­nec­tions to the com­mu­nity, they bring a highly val­ued per­spec­tive to the bench.”

Two-term in­cum­bent Paul S. Piotrowski, 65, a for­mer town and vil­lage pros­e­cu­tor, and a pri­vate prac­ti­tioner who has been the only li­censed at­tor­ney on the Cheek­towaga bench for more than a decade, said he was shocked to lose the key Demo­cratic en­dorse­ment to Stevens. But he is not giv­ing up the bench with­out a fight. He col­lects pe­ti­tions daily with a small group of vol­un­teers who go doorto-door to Cheek­towaga res­i­dents through­out the town. He de­scribed the re­sponse as fa­vor­able – and marked by sur­prise.

With the state push­ing the pri­maries ahead to June this year in­stead of Septem­ber, can­di­dates took to the streets in Fe­bru­ary to gather pe­ti­tions.

“Peo­ple were shocked to see that a judge would be knock­ing at the door, let alone in the ex­treme cold,” Piotrowski said. “It’s a lot of hard work, but I wanted to main­tain my ju­di­cial in­de­pen­dence.”

Piotrowski, for­mer nar­cotics chief for the Erie County District At­tor­ney’s Of­fice, worked 17 years as a pros­e­cu­tor. He also worked as Cheek­towaga and Depew pros­e­cu­tor.

Stevens, a grad­u­ate of Slip­pery Rock Univer­sity, joined the Cheek­towaga Po­lice De­part­ment in 1991 af­ter start­ing his law en­force­ment ca­reer in 1990 as a cor­rec­tion of­fi­cer at Sing Sing Cor­rec­tional Fa­cil­ity in Ossin­ing.

Stevens be­came a de­tec­tive in 2006, and he joined the Youth and Fam­ily Unit in 2010, in­ves­ti­gat­ing do­mes­tic abuse cases, ju­ve­nile is­sues, miss­ing per­sons and white-col­lar crime.

“I’m not deal­ing only with youth, but the fam­ily dy­namic,” said Stevens. “I’m out on the streets deal­ing with th­ese do­mes­tics, and there’s a lot more to it that we are miss­ing – es­pe­cially the men­tal health is­sue.

“I’m not look­ing to throw ev­ery­one in jail, but they need to want to help them­selves,” said Stevens. “It’s a two-way street. I know how to han­dle peo­ple – even those who are in­car­cer­ated.”

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