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Ticketed Driver Takes a Bite Out of Court That Nibbled Him for $10 : Litigation: Small claims jurist awards $200 to man after Antelope Valley traffic court wrongly issued warrants for his arrest over a handling fee.

November 08, 1994|ALAN ABRAHAMSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Kenneth Dine, a North Hollywood contractor, let the registration lapse on his 1984 Pontiac. He was driving on the Antelope Valley Freeway when a California Highway Patrol officer nabbed him for the expired license plates and slapped him with a ticket.

He promptly paid the registration fee and dutifully sent in proof that he had done so.

The response was not what he expected: A computer-generated notice said he now was charged with the crime of failing to appear in court--with bail set at $364.

Then came a bench warrant for Dine's arrest--with bail set even higher, at $500.

It took two trips to the Antelope Valley Courthouse in Lancaster before Dine finally sorted things out.

Then, angry as hell, he sued for his time and trouble--and won. In Small Claims Court, he was awarded $200.

The legal decision goes well beyond the sweet intoxication of righteous vindication. It spotlights the authority of court clerks and of the computers that do their bidding--a power that is largely unchecked.

Even the supervising judge of the Antelope Municipal Court concedes that the warrant was issued mistakenly, under authority that the clerks believed they had but--as the small claims commissioner pointed out--actually do not.

"When you start reading these (California Vehicle Code) sections, it's not quite as clear," Judge William Seelicke said.

You've got that right, said Dine, offering an essential truth: "Just because somebody tells you to send them 10 bucks doesn't mean you have to do it."

It's not, Dine is quick to point out, that he is some wacko bent on raising hell. This, he says, was about democracy--about how traffic court is an essential institution where government power is felt most keenly by the largest number of people, and where it is most essential to stand up for one's rights.

"You've got to test the restraints of democracy," he said. "Otherwise you lose your rights because they get nibbled up from below. It's not like Congress passing up a big law that takes away your rights. It's these little nibbles."

The nibble that ate at Dine began Sept. 19, 1992, on the Antelope Valley Freeway, when a Highway Patrol officer gave him a ticket because his license plates had expired.

Dine paid the overdue license plate fee and, as required by law, notified the Antelope Municipal Court by mail that his plates were current.

He did not, however, pay a $10 handling fee that had been tacked onto the ticket. He believed he was obligated to pay the fee--but, after careful study of the vehicle code, to the DMV, not to the courts.

On Oct. 28, 1992, the court issued Dine a letter telling him the clerks were still waiting for the $10. On Dec. 9, the court computer spat out a document entitled "complaint" that charged Dine with the misdemeanor crime of failing to appear in court to pay the $10 fee. Bail was set at $364.

Dine wrote in to protest. In January, 1993, a court commissioner dismissed the criminal "complaint" but reimposed the $10 fee, giving Dine until Feb. 16 to pay.

Dine did not appear. On Feb. 26, the court computer once again charged him with a crime and issued a warrant for his arrest. Bail was set at $500.

Now Dine was wanted by every police officer in California for $10--in a case that began with a simple infraction that had already been corrected.

The legal basis for the warrant--like the "complaint" that preceded it--was the section of the vehicle code that makes failure to appear in court a misdemeanor.

However, in 1985, the state Legislature added a section that expressly forbids such warrants on three conditions: The driver has a clean record, has a valid California license and was initially ticketed with an infraction. Dine met all three.

In such cases, the court is simply supposed to notify the DMV of the motorist's failure to appear. The DMV, in turn, is to collect any court fees when registering the driver's vehicles. That, the Legislature found, would be more cost-effective.

And that was the point that Dine kept making in letters to the Antelope Municipal Court.

But to no avail.

On July 1, 1993, needing to renew his license by his July 4 birthday, Dine finally trucked out to Lancaster in the Antelope Valley.

He waited all day until his case was heard, he said. Late in the afternoon, he said, a judge dismissed the warrant and told Dine to pay the $10.

By then, however, the clerks had closed the cash register. Dine had to return to Lancaster the next morning to pay the $10.

Then he sued in Van Nuys Small Claims Court, the court nearest his home. On Sept. 20, 1994, Commissioner Kirkland Nyby ruled in his favor.

Jan Caler, the Antelope Valley court administrator, faxed Nyby a letter Oct. 5 asking for an explanation of the ruling. Caler said the court clerks believed that Dine's case had been handled properly; she said that Dine had plenty of chances to pay the $10 by mail.

But Nyby wrote to Caler that the 1985 addition to the vehicle code plainly bars the warrant that her clerks issued for Dine's arrest. A "reasonable expense to clear up the mistakenly issued warrant," he said, was $200.

Presiding Judge Seelicke said the Antelope Municipal Court no longer issues warrants such as the one Dine got.

Dine says he will remain vigilant.

"Most people assume the courts know what they're doing," he said. "My personal experience has shown me that they don't."

More on Small Claims: * The TimesLink on-line service includes a complete guide to Small Claims Court, including information on how to file a complaint and how to defend yourself if somebody files against you. Look in the Consumer area of the Business section or Jump: Small Claims.

Details on Times electronic services, B4.

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