Adding Insult to Injury 

Paperwork snafus at Berkeley's strapped traffic court are leaving well-meaning "customers" with exorbitant fines, suspended licenses, and even jail time.

People hate paying traffic tickets. What do they hate even more? Not being able to pay traffic tickets. In Berkeley's traffic court, this has become something of an epidemic.

Consider the case of Montclair resident Grace Larra, pulled over in Berkeley last December and issued a $10 fix-it ticket for broken brake lights. She mailed in her check the next week and figured that was that. But this month she received an unpleasant surprise: a notice stating that her ticket remained unpaid and that her driver's license would be suspended if she didn't pay the increased fine of $284. Larra headed to Berkeley's traffic court and showed her check carbon to prove she'd tried to pay, but no dice. Her check hadn't been cashed, so it never existed in the eyes of the bureaucracy. Worried about future legal hassles, Larra decided to not contest the ticket. "I'll just pay the 284 bucks and at least clean up my record," she says, "but they screwed me up because I already paid!"

Or take the case of Jenn Kahn, a Berkeley resident caught rolling through a stop sign last July. Eager to pay the bail, she'd made several calls to the number listed on the back of her ticket but was repeatedly told her citation wasn't yet in the system. Nor did she receive a courtesy notice that stated what she owed or when she was supposed to appear in court. After a few months of unsuccessful calls, Kahn concluded her ticket had been lost in the shuffle and gave up trying to pay.

Then, earlier this month, she was pulled over again and learned from the officer that not only had her driver's license been suspended, she was a few weeks away from having a warrant out for her arrest. The cop made Kahn leave her car in a parking lot and walk home. Her fine was now $356, and her insurance company now refuses to renew her policy. Kahn says she was shocked by the stiff punishment exacted for a ticket she'd tried to pay off many times without success.

And the stories get worse. Just talk to Pinole resident Elaidi Youness, who was ticketed in Berkeley last November. Even though Youness has the paperwork to prove he paid his bail in March, something apparently wasn't recorded properly, because a warrant went out for his arrest on account of the "unpaid" ticket, he says. After being pulled over a second time, he was taken to jail and booked. One morning last week found him paying an angry third visit to the recently Kafkaesque Berkeley traffic court to try to wipe his record clean. But to his frustration, he can never get a court date. Each time Youness waits in the line stretching down this hallway, he gripes, the clerks will schedule hearings for the first dozen or so people and then send everyone else packing. Worse, the court doesn't offer those who are turned away a stamp on their paperwork to show they'd at least come down to settle their fines -- something that might help prevent future misunderstandings with the law. "There's no explanation, no proof you were here," Youness fumes, then pleads to an imaginary clerk: "Just tell me I was here so I don't have to be arrested again."

So go the stories of the frustrated folks you'll find each weekday morning waiting for the traffic-court clerks to appear behind their bulletproof windows. Many of these defendants have made multiple trips here to pay fines that became delinquent without their knowledge. The stories are similar: They tried to pay but were never in the system; they never got courtesy notices; or they sent in checks that were never processed. And now they can't even get a hearing.

"I learned about four weeks ago that we had a serious problem with customer service," concedes Berkeley court administrator Ben Stough. He attributes the paperwork fiasco to the conflation of several factors. First, a retrofit forced the traffic court to move temporarily from its home on Martin Luther King Jr. Way to smaller quarters on Center Street. Then, citing budget cuts, the Alameda County Sheriff's Department announced last fall it would no longer be able to provide the court with bailiffs and security. That prompted preparations to move the whole shebang to an Oakland courthouse. To ease the transition, the court went from a walk-in system where defendants could immediately go before a judge, to a preset calendar system where patrons must show up, get a hearing date, and come back later.

The sheriff's department ultimately reversed course, which allowed the traffic court to stay in Berkeley. But the new scheduling system remained, and has turned into a quagmire for everyone involved. "Those kinds of calendars absorb staff time, so now we're diverting staff time from the input of citations," Stough says. "Instead they're doing the follow-up from the calendar."

The result has been a marked slowdown in citation processing and issuance of courtesy notices. It used to take a ticket three weeks to make it through the system, Stough says; now it takes up to eight. The calendar system also leads to long lines at the appointment windows as early as 7:00 a.m., although the court doesn't open until 8:30. "We started to get a bubble; there were more people who needed to come to court than we could see," Stough says. "It was just an awful scenario and I really felt bad, but the problem is we couldn't accommodate everybody."

While Berkeley has had the worst problems, it isn't the only local city to have experienced a slowdown in ticket processing. Jim Brighton, chief of planning and research for the Alameda County Superior Court system, points out that state-level budget cuts have left county courts wrestling with a $3 million annual shortfall. This reduced courthouse hours and brought on a hiring freeze that has left one in ten courthouse jobs unfilled. That means fewer clerks to process reams upon reams of citations -- 257,537 in the last fiscal year. "Just by the sheer volume of it, any detriment in the resources will cause a backlog," Brighton says. "It requires people to keep returning to court to see if their citation has been entered, and that adds to the chaos and the general work of the court in trying to assist the public."

The problem isn't even unique to Alameda County. Since 1998, when the state assumed responsibility for funding the local courts, Sacramento's budget woes have trickled down to individual county courthouses, causing bureaucratic snafus quite literally where the rubber meets the road. This spring, when representatives from the eighteen counties that constitute the Northern District court system gathered in Oakland for a state budget hearing, many had gripes about case backlogs, unprocessed citations, and horror stories much like those cited by Youness, Kahn, and Larra. "We're not alone," Brighton says. "The testimony was very clear from San Francisco, Solano, Sonoma, and so forth."

Alameda County's ticketed masses, meanwhile, had better be prepared for a wait. Lieutenant Dave Kozicki, commander of the Oakland Police Department's traffic section, points out that even under the best circumstances the process isn't speedy. "People get a ticket and want to get the problem out of their lives as soon as possible," he says. "They get a ticket Saturday night and want to run down to the courthouse on Monday, and it's obviously not processed that quickly."

In general, Kozicki says, signing the back of a ticket means you agree to appear in court between ten and thirty days after the ticket was issued. Officer Jim Okies, a Berkeley Police spokesman, agrees: "We encourage them to wait a week to two weeks before trying to contact the court, and if it's not in the system, to continue checking."

But even outside Berkeley, you may not want to hold your breath for official notification. "People should not expect that they will receive a courtesy notice in the mail before the date they have to appear," Kozicki says.

The Berkeley court is making some changes Stough hopes will resolve the problems. Additional hours for traffic hearings have been slotted on Tuesday afternoons from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m., restoring the hours to pre-budget-cut levels. Next month the schedule will revert back to walk-in court, and finally, the court is expected to move back into its old, larger digs in December.

But for those already stuck in the quagmire, there are some scores left to settle such as Larra's ludicrously inflated fine and Youness' jail visit. Not to mention Kahn's insult to injury after being forced to leave her car behind: The police officer had left his business card and an explanatory note on Kahn's windshield, but later that day when she returned to pick up the car, she'd been slapped with yet another ticket.

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