Getting out of jail or paying a traffic ticket can be as easy as whipping out the plastic in Glendale Municipal Court, which now allows bail and other court fees to be paid with Visa or MasterCard.
The service started Aug. 1, and court officials said that, as of last week, 12 people have said "charge it" when paying court-related fees.
"This is just one more option that's available to people. We were already accepting checks, so it was a simple matter to begin taking charge cards," said Sheila Gonzalez, court administrator.
Gonzalez said people would rather owe the credit card companies because they "don't issue arrest warrants if you don't pay the bill. We do."
Under the Glendale Municipal Court system, anyone can pay bail, fines, traffic citations or even the $34 filing costs for civil cases with a Visa or MasterCard. About 6,000 people a month pay such fees, but court officials do not expect heavy use of charge cards until word gets around.
The cards can be used for any fee within the limit of the card. Thus, a person with a $5,000 bail and a credit card with a $2,000 limit would be unable to use the system unless he could come up with the balance in cash. Bail bondsmen can still be used for the 10% plus collateral that is sometimes accepted for bail.
Accepting charge cards will allow people to pay their fines sooner and save bookkeeping time and other record-keeping costs, Gonzalez said. It will also allow people who do not have a large amount of cash readily available--such as at night or on weekends--to get friends or relatives out of jail, she said.
In addition, the credit card system, which usually involves a charge to the store or agency that accepts the cards, is provided free to the Glendale court by the company that operates the system, she said. Even the hardware and the telephone lines do not cost the courts, officials said.
The user, however, is charged $5 for the first $50 and $1 for each additional $50 up to $150. After that, the fee increases in increments up to $3.75. A $400 fine, for example, would show up as a $417.75 charge on the user's bill. The fee is paid to the company that runs the operation.
The court cashier runs the card through an electronic device similar to ones used in retail stores to check the validity of a card. If the amount needed is within the card's limit, a second machine prints a check payable to the court for the amount of the fee. The process takes about four minutes.
Charge by Telephone
The system can also be used to avoid waiting in cashiers' lines. In Portland, Ore., traffic fees and other court fines can be paid over the telephone with a charge card, a system which Gonzalez said will be installed in Glendale in a few months.
Glendale thought it would be the first of the 24 municipal courts in Los Angeles County to take credit cards. But it was beaten out by four days by Van Nuys Municipal Court, which began accepting the cards July 23.
South Bay, Torrance, Valencia and several other municipal courts are planning to install the system within a few weeks.
Funds Net Inc. of Dallas operates the Van Nuys system in a similar manner but will charge the court $60 a month after a six-month trial period, officials said.
At least 16 states have such operations in some of their courts, according to the two companies that offer the service. "All we're doing is allowing people to wire money to themselves and charge it to their Visa or MasterCard," said Herb B. Barrett, government relations manager for ComData Network, the Nashville, Tenn., company that operates the Glendale system.
Charge card use in law-enforcement agencies and other governmental bodies is on the increase, Barrett said. For example, his company allows people who need vital records to charge the fees in 43 state capitals and 30 other cities, he said.
Fearing a loss of business, some bail bondsmen have given the company flak about the system, said Russ Bowden, a ComData salesman. But the company says such fears are unfounded.
He said almost all of the people who use credit cards are paying small fines and probably would not go to a bondsman. Besides, he said: "Most people in big trouble don't have a big line of credit in their pockets."