Ticket Wizard Revisited

Nearly a year after Weekly probe, theres still no justice in countys parking ticket system

That should have ended the matter, but it didn't. According to King, Data Ticket wouldn't discuss the court judgment and refused to refund his money. "All I got was the runaround," he said. King called Data Ticket without avail and eventually showed up at their offices unannounced, but nobody would meet with him. King finally called an attorney who represents the company and faxed him a copy of Judge Flynn's ruling. The next day, an employee of Data Ticket called King to say the company would send him a check for $300. It did.

"I spent dozens of hours on this darn thing," King said. "And in the end, all I got was my own money back."

But not exactly. To get his $300 returned, King had to consult an attorney for a fee of—wait for it—precisely $300.

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That people accused of violating the state's traffic laws are presumed guilty until they can prove their innocence may seem strange, but it's not unconstitutional.

"No higher court would rule that it is," said Neil Cogan, dean of faculty at Whittier Law School in Costa Mesa. "The city's interest—or the county or other authority that issues the ticket—is plainly to collect money. In most cases, the officer [who issued the ticket] is correct, and so the process is in favor of the city so they can collect its money. In the few cases where the officer is incorrect, you are returned the money."

What happened to King is a story that has its roots in AB408, a 1993 bill passed by the California Legislature that was supposed to decriminalize parking citations. Before AB408, a motorist could go to jail for failure to pay a ticket left on his or her windshield. More serious traffic and auto safety violations are still handled this way, but the new law turned parking tickets into civil violations.

While AB408 ensured that nobody would be put behind bars for forgetting to pay a parking ticket, it also created a quasi-judicial, privately run system where people erroneously issued parking tickets can no longer automatically press their case before a traffic court judge or magistrate. Instead, the legislation allowed cities, counties, colleges and transit districts to contract with private agencies such as Data Ticket to hold administrative hearings to resolve disputed tickets.

Thus, in California, the collection of parking fines and the initial hearings that determine guilt or innocence—both traditionally government services—are now in the hands of private businesses. And because suspected violators of the state's parking laws must pay their tickets up front, there is no presumption of innocent until proven guilty.

But the fact that a private company not only earns a profit on each ticket paid but also gets to hold hearings determining if the ticket was issued correctly is a clear conflict of interest. That's why DeVore, the Republican assemblyman from Irvine, introduced legislation on Feb. 21 that would prohibit companies like Data Ticket from having anything to do with enforcing parking fines.

"If you contract out your parking enforcement, you cannot have the people who adjudicate that enforcement be directly or indirectly employed through a consulting arrangement," DeVore says. "It's a blatant conflict of interest. Our system of government is supposed to be impartial. If someone gets a ticket wrongly and discovers that the whole system is fixed, that will sour the public on the system of government in this nation."

If that sounds a little grandiose—that a parking ticket could turn citizens against their government—DeVore insists that it is not.

"Parking tickets are the average person's only direct experience with the justice system," DeVore adds. "And it's a bad experience. Any system of justice that assumes that people are automatically guilty undermines support for the rule of law."

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