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Driver Prevails in Ticket Dispute That Grew and Grew : Law: North Hollywood man wins damages after unjustified action by Antelope Valley court. He says he was striking a blow for democracy.

November 08, 1994|ALAN ABRAHAMSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Kenneth Dine, a North Hollywood contractor, let the registration lapse on his 1984 Pontiac. On the Antelope Valley Freeway, a cop 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 a computer-generated notice that said he now is charged with the crime of failing to appear in court--with bail set at $364. Then came a bench warrant--and bail of $500.

It took two trips out to the Antelope Valley courthouse, but Dine finally sorted things out. Then, angry as hell, he sued for his time and trouble. And he won.

In small claims court recently, he was awarded $200. It's a decision that goes well beyond the sweetness of righteous vindication. It spotlights the authority of the non-elected court clerks, and the computers that do their bidding--a power that is largely unchecked.

Even the supervising judge of 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 (Vehicle Code) sections, it's not quite as clear," Judge William Seelicke said.

You 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 said, that he's some wacko bent on raising hell. Instead, he said, traffic court is an essential institution of democracy, where government power is felt most keenly by the largest number of people--and where it's most essential to stand up for one's rights.

"You've got to test the restraints of democracy," Dine 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."

So when a California Highway Patrol officer stopped him on Sept. 19, 1992, on the Antelope Valley Freeway near Soledad Canyon Road and gave him a ticket because his license plates had expired, Dine was ready to do battle.

He paid the overdue license plate fee and, as required by law, notified 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 state Vehicle Code, to the Department of Motor Vehicles, not 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, and 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 a failure to appear in court a misdemeanor.

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

In that instance, the court is simply supposed to notify the DMV of the motorist's failure to appear. In turn, the DMV 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 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 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 fee.

By then, however, the clerks had closed the cash register. Dine insisted that he was made to wait all day on purpose. Court officials denied that.

The next morning, Dine drove back out to Lancaster and paid the $10.

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

Jan Caler, the Antelope Valley court administrator, faxed Nyby a letter on Oct. 5 asking for an explanation, saying the court clerks believed his case had been handled properly. She said in an interview that Dine had plenty of chances to pay the $10 fee by mail.

Nyby wrote Caler back, saying 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.

Antelope Municipal Court no longer issues warrants like the one Dine got, said Seelicke, the presiding judge.

Still in dispute, according to Dine, is the legality of the complaint that was issued before the warrant. That document, Caler said, was not a warrant for Dine's arrest. However, other courts--the downtown Los Angeles Municipal Court, for instance--use the exact same computer form and do refer to it as a warrant.

"If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it's a duck," Dine said.

He added that he intends to keep the pressure on, to see that the courts apply the law consistently. "Most people assume the courts know what they're doing. My personal experience has shown me that they don't."

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