Money extraction seems to be major aim of traffic enforcers

Mark Arner

LEMON GROVE — In early December, while driving down the street in this quiet little city, I was surprised by the loud siren and flashing red lights aimed at me.

I pulled over, wondering what I’d done. It was the first time in 25 years that I’d been stopped by the law. The sheriff’s deputy asked if I knew the speed limit. I told him 35 mph. “I clocked you going 47,” he said, with a kind of “gotcha” expression.

I signed the ticket at his request — not admitting guilt, but promising to appear a month later in El Cajon Municipal Court.

My next surprise was the fine. The court, in its “courtesy notice,” said my bail was $346. That seemed high for driving 12 mph over the speed limit.

It gave two options to lower the fine: I could pay only $204 — if I mailed the payment in 30 days. Or, I could take traffic school to get the violation dismissed, but that would cost more: an administrative fee of $228, plus whatever the traffic school charged. Finally, it warned if I failed to settle the case within a month, it would cost an extra $250 civil assessment and my driver’s license would be suspended.

With my insurance rates in mind, I chose option No. 2 and enrolled in “Patrick’s Comedy Traffic School.” It turned out better than I expected.

For $15, instructor/owner Patrick Mulroy spent eight hours teaching the basics: How to calmly respond to police officers; what speeds are legal; how cameras automatically take motorists’ pictures and mail tickets when they run red lights; and the tough penalties for drinking and driving.

However, the best part of his course for me was when he noticed mistakes on my ticket.

The deputy had listed the road’s speed limit as 5 mph, instead of 35 mph. He also didn’t fill in the blanks noting the traffic, weather conditions and the road’s safe speed.

Mulroy also explained motorists’ rights that the court’s letter didn’t: You can challenge tickets without an attorney — either in writing, or by showing up for trial. He also noted that a road’s posted speed limit is usually not the “law.”

The state’s basic speed law actually prohibits driving “at a speed greater than is reasonable, or prudent having due regard for weather, visibility, the traffic . . . .”

City councils usually set the speeds on major roads, based on the average speed that most motorists drive during traffic surveys.

After the school was finished, Mulroy offered to sell a packet of written defense “declarations” for a half-dozen different traffic violations that could guide you in your defense in court. He charged $6.

He also said he thought that California’s traffic enforcement system had been corrupted into a money-making tool for government and private insurance companies.

During the past several decades, Mulroy noted, state lawmakers have eliminated motorists’ right to a jury trial for most traffic tickets, and increased the years that tickets remain on our records — which allows insurance companies to charge higher rates.

Based on his three years of teaching and research, Mulroy estimated that only 20 percent of motorists attend traffic school, and a mere 1 percent challenge their tickets in court.

A spokesman for the Department of Motor Vehicles said it doesn’t keep track of how many traffic citations are issued, how much it collects in traffic fines or how many people challenge tickets.

However, the DMV recorded 4.7 million convictions for traffic violations last year from the state’s 20.5 million licensed drivers.

To get ticket revenues, you have to call each city. Lemon Grove, for example, collected $49,709 in traffic fines during the 1998 fiscal year.

“They might as well set up an `Anytime Teller’ in the middle of the courthouse,” Mulroy said.

I followed Mulroy’s written defense guide and challenged my ticket.

But, that was after I did my own research and discovered that the Lemon Grove City Council had lowered the speed limit a year before on Palm Street to 35 mph from 40 mph.

The latest speed survey showed that the average speed on the street was 40 mph, and the “safe speed” was 43 mph, according to a certified copy of the survey from City Hall.

So, I had been ticketed for going 4 mph faster than the “safe speed,” at the bottom of a four-block-long hill.

I pointed out to the court that the Sheriff’s Department had picked the base of hill — at Mulder Street — to set up a speed trap.

It took me one court appearance to complain about the deputy’s mistake on the speed limit. Court Commissioner Rankin then agreed to lower my maximum fine to $62 from the initial $346. I pleaded not guilty and asked for a “trial by written declaration,” meaning both the deputy and I had a few weeks to submit conflicting views of the incident.

The deputy emphasized his 200 hours of training, three years of traffic enforcement and 11 years with the Sheriff’s Department.

He also did his best to enhance the appearance of my alleged offense, by adding things that he hadn’t noted on my initial citation. He said it happened only two blocks from a school. City maps show that Mulder Street is four blocks from the school, and three blocks away from the “school zone.” The deputy also wrote that the weather was “cloudy,” the road was “wet” and the traffic was “medium.” I wrote that the road was dry, the weather fair and the traffic light. We both signed our statements under penalty of perjury.

Court Administrator Frederick W. Lear advised me a couple weeks later that I had been judged “guilty,” but didn’t say who made the decision. He assessed no fine, but ordered me to pay $24 in court fees, and said he would dismiss the record of the violation if I took traffic school.

I took him up on his offer. I handed over my traffic school receipt and wrote a check for $24. Case closed.

But, it still felt like Lemon Grove, the Sheriff’s Department and the traffic court system were more interested in revenue than in safe traffic.

Maybe ol’ Patrick has a point. He is building an Internet web site to spread the word. The address?

The joke’s still on us, though.

Posted in Article, San Diego Union Tribune.