Traffic tickets snarled in court chaos, putting drivers at risk : LUSENET : TimeBomb 2000 (Y2000) : One Thread

Thursday, September 23, 1999

Your Wheels Traffic Tickets Snarled in Court Chaos, Putting Drivers at Risk By RALPH VARTABEDIAN, Times Staff Writer


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bout 1 million Californians currently have suspended or revoked licenses, presumably because all of them deserved to lose their driving privileges and not because they became the victims of administrative chaos in government. But it's not a perfect world, and without question law-abiding citizens are at risk of losing their licenses because somebody in local government screwed up. That is becoming clear from the huge scope of the Los Angeles Municipal Court's administrative turmoil. As many as 30,000 traffic tickets issued in Los Angeles County were grossly mishandled, and so far even the judges running the system are having a tough time getting to the bottom of the mess. The tickets were not entered into the court's data-processing system until after the court appearance dates in some cases, leaving motorists without any way to pay the tickets by telephone or using the Internet. Even in cases in which the tickets were paid, administrators at the court notified the California Department of Motor Vehicles via computer that there had been a failure-to-pay violation and ordered the motorists licenses suspended. The DMV dutifully sent out suspension notices to the ticket holders, though officials there say they have no way of knowing whether the notices were valid or the result of court errors. And they don't care, because it's not their problem. "The courts made it; the courts are going to have to straighten it out," said DMV spokesman Evan Nossoff. Judge Veronica S. McBeth, chief of the Municipal Court section that handles driving violations, said she is still trying to determine what went wrong. "I can't say we were right. Somebody messed up," McBeth said. "I am responsible. I am the presiding judge. I am not the emperor. It is embarrassing to the court to have this happen." * * * Those are honest and appropriate words, because ultimately the court is supposed to serve the public, which has every reason to expect that tickets are processed competently and that payment procedures are as simple and fair as possible. So far, McBeth believes, roughly 30,000 tickets sent to an outside vendor for processing did not come back to the court--either on time or at all. The system works like this: After law enforcement officers write tickets, the tickets are periodically forwarded to the court. The court logs the ticket numbers and then sends them to the outside vendor, which enters the pertinent information into a computer system. The tickets are then returned to the court, along with the processed data. In this case, the vendor is U.S. Data Source of Santa Fe Springs. Martin Madden, the firm's chief executive, said that U.S. Data Source was never more than a few days behind schedule and that the court sometimes sends tickets for processing after they have expired. But Bernadette Duncan, the court's administrator for tickets, said that Madden's firm was weeks behind schedule and that the company was at fault. Typically, the court appearance date--or expiration date--is set seven weeks after the ticket is written, presumably allowing plenty of time for the court to process the ticket and for the motorist to pay the fine. But he or she can't pay until the ticket is entered into the computer system--the fine is not printed on the ticket. So if it is never entered into the computer system, the only recourse is for the motorist to trundle down to court with his or her copy of the ticket. But even then, there can be problems. Take the case of Pepe X, who contacted Your Wheels with the problem of his son's traffic ticket. He and his son went to court three times to pay the ticket and were told on each occasion that there was no record of the ticket and that it could not be paid. In a recent e-mail, he worries that someday this ticket will come back to haunt his son. The court clerks who sent him away were not doing their jobs. Nobody apparently even attempted to place a tracer on the ticket. That could have allowed the ticket to be cleared, a court spokeswoman said. * * * Pepe X has plenty of reason to worry. When the court mishandles tickets, it's not merely an inconvenience. If a motorist with a suspended license were stopped, the consequences would be serious. Can you imagine trying to explain to a cop that you aren't really a scofflaw but that the license suspension is the fault of a computer malfunction at the L.A. Municipal Court? The cop would probably say: Tell it to the judge. So I will tell it to Judge McBeth: The court should fully investigate this ridiculous mess and then mail apologies to the people who were inconvenienced. I'd suggest that the tickets be annulled, but the notion of letting motorists who were ticketed in serious accidents off the hook doesn't seem morally right. And finally, the court must get to the bottom of the DMV suspensions. How do motorists undo suspension orders? The court will "sell" them proof for $6 that they paid the ticket, and then the proof must be physically taken to the DMV. What a joke: The court sells you the proof that it screwed up. Court clerks, however, can fax DMV the abstracts, which other courts in the state do. If you ask, the L.A. Municipal Court should also do so. The leading reason the DMV suspends driver's licenses is failure to pay a ticket or fine, not actual convictions for serious driving violations. In a recent month, DMV suspended 34,000 Californians who allegedly had failed to pay their tickets.

Are all of those people actually failing to pay tickets--or are some the victims of municipal ticket systems that are out of control? * * * Ralph Vartabedian cannot answer mail personally but responds in this column to automotive questions of general interest. Write to Your Wheels, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053. Via e-mail:

-- Homer Beanfang (, September 23, 1999


What's worse, they have a risk of getting shot by some pig (hiway patrol or police) if they get a bit huffy and don't act like a proper nigger (regardless of race) when the "officer" informs them that they are gonna be ticketed or they and/or their car is gonna be hauled away.

-- A (, September 24, 1999.

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