By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
Wayne King beat a parking ticket in 2006, and if that doesn't sound like a big deal, let's see you do it. More than 50,000 parking citations were issued throughout Orange County last year, and King is one of only two people—that's two, out of more than 50,000—who didn't have to pay. Well, not unless you count the $300 he spent in legal fees . . . and the six months of time and energy he poured into a bizarre odyssey through quasi-judicial hell. Except for that, King totally kicked ass.
King's serpentine journey in search of a smidgen of justice underscores again the problems with Orange County's system of parking-ticket fee collection, which was exposed by the Weekly last year ("The Ticket Wizard," June 9, 2006). A mysterious Newport Beach-based company, Data Ticket, Inc., not only collects money from parking tickets issued throughout the county, but also acts as judge and jury whenever people challenge their citations. After reading that story, Assemblyman Chuck DeVore (R-Irvine) did his own investigation and discovered a system so freighted with conflict of interest and weighted against people who believe they were unfairly issued parking tickets that he recently introduced legislation aimed at reforming the process.
New figures released by the Orange County Sheriff's Department reveal exactly how lopsided the system really is. Of the more than 50,000 parking tickets issued countywide last year, just 3,659 were appealed. But only 13 of those people ever made it to a courtroom after having their tickets upheld—not by a public official or agency, but by Data Ticket, Inc., the company that is contracted to process and enforce tickets issued by Sheriff's deputies and numerous cities from Costa Mesa to Aliso Viejo. And of the 13 cases that finally reached an Orange County Superior Court judge, all but two were immediately dismissed.
King, a part-time contractor with the Sheriff's Department, began his trip through this legal labyrinth on June 6, 2006, when a Sheriff's deputy slapped him with a $275 citation for parking in a reserved area beside a handicapped slot in a parking structure. "The ticket should never have been issued," King said. "The place was dimly lit, the blue paint was worn away and imperceptible against the black asphalt."
King decided to fight his ticket. First, he challenged it in an informal hearing with the Sheriff's Department, which upheld the citation. Then King became one of the 498 people last year who took things to a second-level administrative hearing. At this point, his case automatically fell under the jurisdiction of Data Ticket. Things didn't look good. Last year, nearly 80 percent of people who sought a second-level administrative hearing with Data Ticket—which processes parking tickets for various cities, counties, and entities across California—had their citations upheld by the company, typically in a form letter providing no explanation for the decision.
Data Ticket refused several requests from the Weekly to be interviewed about its work. Officially, the company is charged with recording citations, cashing checks, and marking tickets as paid so that violators—or alleged violators—can re-register their cars. According to its official website, "Data Ticket is a team of individuals committed to enhancing the revenue of the clients it serves." But the company also runs a private judicial system in which allegedly "independent" hearing examiners with only 12 hours of training try thousands of ticket appeals every year. In other words, the company's stated mission ("to enhance the revenue of its clients") is a contradiction of its responsibility to provide an independent hearing. The privately owned company's annual profits are a mystery.
Before King could challenge Data Ticket in court, he had to pay his ticket up front. That's typical. On Oct. 24, four months after the citation was issued, King coughed up the $275 fine, plus a $25 court fee.
But after filing his appeal, King did something unusual. "I asked the Sheriff's Department for a copy of the contract with [Data Ticket] that allows them to process citations and run hearings," he explained. "No one could find it. Apparently, the Sheriff's Department didn't even have a file on the organization." It took 10 days until King received a call from the Sheriff's Department telling him a copy of the county's 27-page contract with Data Ticket, Inc., was available. He was charged $5.20.
Finally, on Dec. 23—the Friday before Christmas—King got his chance to face Data Ticket in court. But the company didn't show up. It didn't have to. According to the law, it merely had to deliver its evidence: the ticket itself.
But because so few people invest the time and effort required to appeal a parking ticket hearing, the court didn't know how to handle King's case. "I arrived at 8:30 in the morning, at the right place, on the right day, and at the right time," King said, "but no one knew what to do with me. They shuffled me from one courtroom to another until 2 in the afternoon when everyone else had gone home for Christmas."
When Orange County Superior Court Judge John L. Flynn opened Data Ticket's file on the case, he discovered that Data Ticket didn't know how to handle King's case, either. "The firm had combined the contents of my case file with that of a man from Stanton," King said. The judge ordered Data Ticket to refund the $300 fine that King had paid up front.
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.
* * *
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."