The Ticket Wizard

Parking tickets are now handled by a mysterious OC company that makes justice and the law go . . . poof

Last year, I found myself in something like an Eastern European short story, except that it was late summer—August—and South County. I'd bought a car from a guy, and everything was going down in the flat trajectory of something foreordained. I gave him the cash, got my car, and drove away.

Then it got weird. The DMV refused to register the car because the seller hadn't paid for a smog check and suddenly couldn't speak English or Spanish. So I got a temporary tag, one of those red squares with a white number you occasionally see taped to rear windows. A few days after that, I found a $25 ticket under the car's windshield wipers: failure to display a temporary tag—which I had, and which was right where it was supposed to be.

I remember standing there, looking between the citation in my hand and the red and white square in my rear window, thinking that this was clearly a normal, even excusable human error. There was a lot of traffic on the street that morning; the rear window of the car faced directly into the sun; color blindness makes red appear blue.

One-way ticket. Photo by Ben Froehlich
One-way ticket. Photo by Ben Froehlich

So I called the local chief of police services, a county sheriff's lieutenant assigned to the city of Aliso Viejo. I presented my case.

"The tag was there," I said. I offered to bring pictures and receipts.

Against my evidence was the word of the parking enforcement officer, who told her boss, "No, the tag wasn't there."

And that was that. In a contest between logic and institutional pride, the result was inevitable.

"Take it up with a hearing officer," the chief said.

I probably should've paid the $25, but I've got my own kind of institutional pride.

They've picked on the wrong guy, I thought.

I'd take them to traffic court. I'd done it before, and I'd won.

Then I discovered that you can't go to court. Not anymore.

*   *   *

To understand why you can't have your day in court for a parking ticket, travel back to 1993, when the California Legislature passed Assembly Bill 408 to reform parking ticket regulations. It was both a very good and a very bad thing.

Before AB 408, drivers could be hauled off to jail merely for failing to pay a ticket that might have washed off in the rain. They were put into orange jumpsuits and released only after paying an exorbitant fine.

Traffic and auto safety violations are still handled this way, but AB 408 decriminalized parking citations. It turned them into ordinary civil violations. This reform had two effects—one good, one bad: drivers are no longer hauled off for overstaying a green zone or running out of quarters to feed a parking meter. That's a good thing.

But the reform accomplished this feat only by turning parking citations over to a privatized, unregulated, quasi-judicial Never Never Land. While drivers can still protest moving violations before a traffic court magistrate, parking tickets are a different matter.

"The legislature determined that handling parking tickets was a burden on the court system," says Melville Capps, one of the few attorneys in California familiar with parking law.

But Capps says parking tickets were never a burden. In 1990, in his own county, San Diego, the North County judicial district "heard over 200,000 cases of all types, more than half of them traffic tickets, but only 618 were contested parking tickets."

In place of your day in court, AB 408 allowed public entities—cities, counties, colleges and transit districts—to contract with private agencies to provide "administrative hearings." In Orange County, most municipalities and the county government have contracted with outside companies.

I eventually discovered that most Orange County cities, from Costa Mesa to Aliso Viejo, use the same company to process their parking ticket fines and hold the administrative hearings: Data Ticket, Inc. of Newport Beach.

*   *   *

Last summer, I knew none of this—until Ilooked on the back of the citation and discovered that the $25 fine was to be sent to something called the Citation Processing Center in Huntington Beach. I called the toll-free number and was told that I couldn't take the ticket to traffic court. I would have to pay the fine first, and then they would look into it.

I sent off a carefully prepared set of photos and receipts, along with $25, and hoped for the best.

The "look into it" was denied. No explanation. But I had the option of requesting an administrative hearing, which would be held within 90 days. I demanded one.

*   *   *

Five months after I got the ticket, in January 2006, I walked into my administrative hearing. By then, I'd already looked into the law. What I found was unnerving: you are already presumed guilty, you have no right to question or challenge the officer who issues you a parking ticket—no right to face your accuser, in other words—and the issuing agency isn't required to provide any evidence of your wrongdoing other than a copy of the ticket and registration information from the DMV.

"This presumption of guilt is un-American," attorney Capps says simply.

The trial of the century finally took place in a small room behind the front desk of the Sheriff's station in Aliso Viejo. The hearing officer, a nice, grandmotherly lady, smiled amiably. I showed her documents, receipts and pictures, and told my story for about an hour. She questioned nothing, mentioned no other evidence, and appeared to agree with my case, noting that citations are rarely issued when the license plate tag has expired only a month before. We parted with a smile.

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