By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
By Charles Lam
I was upbeat.
Weeks later, roughly six months after the original citation was issued, a one-page letter arrived from the Citation Processing Center. In bold letters, it said simply, "Denied."
No reason was given, other than an admonition to look out for parking signs. There was a modest concession, and, sure, I probably should have declared victory then and there because of it: the letter said my fine had been reduced to $10 because I was able to provide proof that temporary registration existed.
Ten bucks. I looked through the envelope and the letter: the Citation Processing Center had neglected to enclose a $15 refund check. I called the toll-free number again, but no one could explain what happened to the money.
The letter ended, "This decision is final. If you wish to appeal further, please follow the instructions on the backside [sic] of this page."
On the reverse, I discovered a form for appealing the decision to a Superior Court. There was no notice that I'd have to pay an additional $25 fee to process the form, or that the court had to receive it within 30 days.
At the bottom of the letter, under the Citation Processing Center's letterhead, was the signature of the very nice, grandmotherly hearing officer. This signature, I soon discovered, rendered the entire process, including the signed letter, completely illegal.
But that didn't change anything either.
* * *
What is the Citation Processing Center? Why does it have a post office box, but no street address? Why can't you use Google—or Yahoo or Local.com—to find it?
I called the toll-free number again and asked to speak to a supervisor. I was put through to Marjorie Fleming. She wouldn't tell me her title or anything else. I told her that, in addition to being an aggrieved motorist, I'm a journalist.
Fleming would say only that her organization had nothing to say.
"We don't give interviews," she said. "We don't need publicity. We refer reporters back to public agencies. We operate as an agent for whomever we are contracted with. There is no story here."
She hung up.
So I went looking for a Citation Processing Center website. I found only this: Google produced the site of one of the center's clients, the Bay Area Rapid Transit District. BART carries a link to something called ticketwizard5000.com.
Apparently built in the early or mid-'90s, ticketwizard5000.com allows drivers who can find it to pay parking tickets online. The homepage has a logo—a purple, Gandalf-like character in a conical hat—and the Citation Processing Center's post office box, but no street address. A check with whois.com yielded the curious fact that the manager of the ticketwizard5000.com site is someone by the name of "Wizard, Ticket."
Since this Citation Processing Center was in business in Huntington Beach, I asked city officials there to look up its business license. An investigator got back to me and said that the Citation Processing Center was a DBA—a "doing business as" nameplate—for another business, a company called Data Ticket, Inc.—and Data Ticket, the investigator told me, actually has a street address in Newport Beach near the airport.
* * *
A quick call to Data Ticket yielded the astonishing fact that Data Ticket's president is the same Marjorie Fleming, the laconic spokeswoman for the Citation Processing Center.
Or so it seemed.
According to the website of the Municipal Services Bureau, a government collection agency ("MSB is your Revenue Recovery Expert!") headquartered in Austin, Texas, Fleming is also senior vice president of that company's parking division. Municipal Services Bureau is itself a subsidiary of yet another company, the Gila Group, which serves as a collection agency for credit unions.
Gila's vice president of sales, Chuck Busch, says his company divested itself of Data Ticket nine months ago. I called Fleming to confirm this. She hung up on me.
In fact, no one in Orange County seems to know much about Municipal Services Bureau, Data Ticket, the Citation Processing Center, the Ticket Wizard site, their relationship to one another other, or the laws under which any of these entities operate.
"It looks as though the left hand and the right hand don't know what the other is doing," says Costa Mesa attorney Dan Grupenhagen, a former prosecutor who specializes in traffic cases.
Why the secrecy? One senior North Orange County policeman seriously speculated, "Maybe they just don't want people showing up with pitchforks."
* * *
Remember the signature at the bottom of the letter from the Citation Processing Center? The signature of the very nice, grandmotherly hearing officer? I read the relevant sections of the California Vehicle Code and discovered that this signature rendered the entire process completely illegal.
The law is very specific. One of the few rights Californians still have in a parking case, at least on paper, is the right to a hearing before a neutral party. "Neutral" is the key word. Section 40215 4(A) states, "An examiner shall not be employed, managed or controlled by a person whose primary duties are parking enforcement, parking citation, processing, collection or issuance. The examiner shall be separate and independent from the citation collection or processing function."