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ORANGE COUNTY PERSPECTIVE : Obey or Pay

November 09, 1994

By deciding that Orange County could issue warrants to more than 100,000 traffic scofflaws, an appellate court has bolstered the idea of respecting the rules of the road.

In its ruling last month, the 4th District Court of Appeal in Santa Ana indicated it was aware of the law's impact. To rule that the warrants had been issued wrongly would be to "exalt dry formalism," the judges said. The legal system "cannot afford such niceties."

That may seem a surprising comment from that particular court. For years it has done a fine job protecting the rights of the accused in criminal cases, where the stakes can be very high, sometimes based on what opponents claimed were mere technicalities. But this case dealt with traffic penalties that ought to be respected and paid.

The plaintiff was a Laguna Niguel resident who had paid nearly $2,000 in fines for traffic violations and not appearing in court. He argued that letting court clerks issue warrants against those failing to appear was unconstitutional because it gave the clerks powers that were reserved for prosecutors. Prosecutors are an arm of the executive branch, the courts are part of the judiciary, and the Constitution mandates separating their powers, went the argument. A lower court agreed.

But the appellate court said courts and court clerks are different, with the clerks able to perform executive duties. The reversal spared counties the loss of millions of dollars in fines and let Orange County reissue more than 100,000 warrants. It also sent a clear warning to motorists: Obey the law or pay the fine.

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