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.
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.
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."
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."
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.
* * *
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."
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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.