The Ticket Wizard

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

The code makes no exception for companies owned by wizards.

Data Ticket's customer service supervisor Irene Cruz first told me the hearing officer who signed their letter to me is a company employee. She abruptly changed her mind when I read her the law.

Then Cruz said the woman is "actually an independent contractor."

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

But that's a distinction without a difference. And it's a distinction that Data Ticket's contract with the city of Aliso Viejo doesn't make. The contract specifically says the company will provide both services. At the top of the cover page, in bold caps, the document is titled "AGREEMENT FOR PROCESSING PARKING TICKETS AND CONDUCTING ADMINISTRATIVE HEARINGS."

Both functions: processing parking tickets and conducting administrative hearings. As if Section 20415 A(4) didn't exist.

The result is predictable. Last year, the city of Costa Mesa, a Data Ticket city, issued a total of 27,527 citations. Of these, 1,135 were appealed, but only 162—less than 0.6 percent—were dismissed. Of the nearly 1,000 citations that were upheld, only seven were taken to Superior Court. Six of those seven were dismissed.

Another Data Ticket city, Laguna Hills, with far fewer citations, reports that nearly half of its hearings result in dismissals. I was unable to find out why Laguna Hills stats are so different from Costa Mesa's, but not one Laguna Hills citation ever made it to Superior Court.

Perhaps the system simply exhausts people after six months. Perhaps motorists don't know that they have only 30 days to send off an appeal, plus $25, from the day the nice, grandmotherly Citation Processing Center hearing officer places her signature on their denial letters.

So the city of Aliso Viejo has my $10 for keeps, thanks to a system that is pure Kafka.

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Because most parking fines are relatively small, lawyers are rarely hired to contest them. There's little case law on the books, and law professors know very little about parking ticket law.

"It falls between the cracks," says Whittier Law School professor David Treiman, who specializes in government law. "It's not covered in any traditional law school courses."

Treiman believes the problem stems from a habit of privatizing functions that traditionally belong to government. "Your rights are diluted and obfuscated when responsibility is delegated to a private body. When you deal with the government, you know what the rules are. In the private sector, you not only don't know what the rules are, you may not know where to find them."

Another result of California's privatization of parking ticket justice is a complete lack of regulation. Boxers, insurance agents and beauticians must obtain licenses and satisfy licensing boards. Not Data Ticket.

"It's all about money," attorney Grupenhagen told me. "Cities are behaving like revenue-making machines. If they cared about safety, they wouldn't farm out citations to private companies."

Other cities, like Aliso Viejo, keep their fines low because, as one local official said, "We just want people to stop doing bad things." But it eventually cost the city of Aliso Viejo a lot more than $25 not to pay me back my $25.

Whatever the case, shortly after Data Ticket became aware of this story, a check for $15 arrived in my mailbox bearing two utterly indecipherable signatures.

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