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Parking Ticket Protesters Won't Have Day in Court : Law: Cities will have to provide hearing officers to resolve disputes.

August 12, 1993|GORDON DILLOW | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LONG BEACH AREA — Say that you walk out of a store in Downey or an office in Long Beach and you see a parking cop slapping a ticket on your car. For some reason--the meter was broken, your wife was having a baby, whatever--you don't think it is fair.

So you try to talk the parking cop out of it, only to be greeted with one of those blank, just-doing-my-job civil service stares. Finally, after several minutes of arguing and waving your arms, you take the ticket and tell the officer, "I'll see you in court."

Sorry. No you won't.

Under the provisions of a new and little-publicized state law that took effect July 1, in most cases people with complaints about parking tickets will no longer have their day in court, because the courts have essentially been taken out of the ticket business.

Instead, people who want to dispute parking tickets will have to make their case to a city official or non-judicial hearing officer appointed by the city or other agency that gave them the ticket.

Advocates say the new system, which was designed to relieve municipal traffic courts of the expense and hassle of dealing with parking tickets--and hand that expense and hassle over to the cities that issue the tickets--will be simpler and just as fair as the old system.

But others are not so sure.

"The state Legislature decided that the way parking tickets were being handled in the courts was too expensive and wasn't appropriate to what a parking ticket is," said Jay Carsman, legislative chairman of the California Public Parking Assn., a statewide group of parking officials that helped draft the new law sponsored by Assemblyman Bob Epple (D-Cerritos).

"A parking ticket isn't a serious crime. It can hurt your wallet, but you aren't going to go to jail for it," Carsman said. "What we've done is to decriminalize parking tickets."

The new system, Carsman said, "is simple, convenient, easy to understand and much less difficult to manage than the court system."

Carsman pointed out that in Los Angeles alone, about 120,000 parking tickets are challenged by their unhappy recipients every year--out of 3.5 million issued--which puts a strain on a court system that has plenty of more pressing crimes to deal with.

But at least some area city officials, already beset by budget cuts and staff reductions, are not exactly thrilled by the prospect of suddenly having to investigate and resolve parking ticket beefs.

"In addition to everything else I've got to do, now thanks to the state I'm going to be reviewing parking tickets," said Cudahy Assistant City Manager Nic Mull. Cudahy issues about 4,500 parking tickets a year, Mull said.

Another problem, some city officials say, is that they don't know for sure how many disputes they are going to have to handle.

"We've never handled parking tickets before," said Lowell Williams, finance director in Downey, which issues about 17,000 parking tickets a year. "We know how many we were writing, but we don't know how many were 'beefed,' because the courts always handled that. Maybe it's going to be 10 a month, maybe 100 a month. We just don't know."

Most estimates put the average percentage of disputed parking tickets at 1% to 3% of those issued.

Cities are required to have the new system operating no later than Jan. 1, 1994. Some, like Long Beach, already have it. Others, such as Cudahy, won't be ready to handle their own ticket disputes until sometime this fall.

The new system works like this:

If you get a parking ticket you don't think you deserve, within 21 days you can contact--by telephone, mail or in person--the city or other agency that issued it and explain why you think the ticket should be dismissed. Officials are required to investigate your claim, and if it is considered legitimate, the ticket will be dismissed.

If your objection is not accepted, you can say the heck with it and pay the ticket, or within 15 days you can ask for an administrative review. But first you have to pay the parking fine. The administrative review will be conducted by a hearing officer who will either dismiss the ticket, in which case you get your money back, or uphold it based on "a preponderance of evidence," in which case the city keeps your money. The administrative review can be done through the mail, or you can appear in person before a hearing officer.

In some cities, the hearing officer may be a city employee. Other cities plan to contract with private companies to provide hearing officers.

Long Beach, which issues more than 300,000 parking tickets a year, has contracted with Dispute Resolution Services, a non-judicial arbitration company headquartered in downtown Los Angeles, to provide hearing officers. Whittier and Pico Rivera also are using a contractor. Cudahy, South Gate, Vernon, Huntington Park and Bell, meanwhile, plan to hire two retired police officers to ride the circuit conducting administrative reviews in each city. In Paramount, the administrative reviews will be handled by the director of public safety.

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