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New Ticket-Payment System: Driver Beware

July 08, 1999|RALPH VARTABEDIAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Los Angeles Municipal Court deserves credit for its new automated traffic-ticket-processing system, which uses technology appropriate to 1999 while bigger and more important government agencies remain stuck in the 1960s.

But the court's system is certainly not operating flawlessly, as an undetermined number of motorists recently discovered when they tried to pay traffic fines and ended up in a bureaucratic snafu.

The court, the largest limited-jurisdiction court in the nation, allows individuals to process tickets and pay fines with credit cards through an automated telephone system or at an Internet site.

The system backed up badly this spring, when an outside vendor fell six weeks behind on entering data from individual tickets into the system. I recently discovered the glitch firsthand after I received a minor traffic ticket from a police cruiser in downtown Los Angeles.

The whole point of the new automated system is to provide better public service to the roughly 600,000 recipients of traffic tickets each year, said Marcia Skolnik, court spokeswoman.

"We don't want you to come in," she said. "That's why we provide these services."

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The last time I got a ticket and paid it on time, the court didn't record it and I became locked in a Kafkaesque nightmare for several years. But that was back in the District of Columbia. I hoped that people on the West Coast knew something about modern ticket-processing technology.

My first indication to the contrary came from the computer-generated voice on the court's automated system, which said it had no record of my infraction when I called a few weeks after receiving the ticket in early April.

I eventually called back six more times in the next month and checked the court's Web site, which offers online processing. Still no record of the ticket. I also talked to customer service representatives and offered to pay whatever was required. Without a valid ticket record, they could accept no money.

Eventually, the due date came on May 28 and I made a last-ditch effort to pay the fine. No record. I figured maybe the ticket was lost or misfiled.

Behind the scenes, the outside vendor had failed to post my ticket, along with an unknown number of others, said Bernadette Duncan, the court's division chief who handles traffic ticket processing.

My ticket wasn't posted into the computer until June 17, about three weeks after the due date and about nine or 10 weeks after I received it.

So what?

In early June, I received a notice from the court asking for prompt payment of a $22 fine, which I put in the next business day's mail. The very next day, though, I received a demand for bail of $483 and notice that my license was being suspended.

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Court officials acknowledged that I was among an unknown number of motorists whose tickets were not posted until after they were due. Although I didn't ask for or receive any favors, the bail demand was rescinded. Duncan said any other motorists who suspect they were caught in the snafu should contact the court. She said the outside vendor is now caught up and that tickets are once again being processed on schedule.

I'm not so sure. When I last checked Tuesday on the court's Web site (http://www.lamuni.org), it still showed that my license was being suspended.

Was I blameless? No. I should have gone down to the court to file a tracking document when it could not locate the ticket. Yet in none of my prior contacts with the court did anybody inform me that the system was backed up. Though operations at government agencies often go bonkers, the good ones admit it and find a way of making their errors known.

Here's the court's mission statement, posted on the front page of its Web site: "The Los Angeles Municipal Court shall serve the public in a fair, accessible, accountable, efficient and independent manner."

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Ralph Vartabedian cannot answer mail personally but responds in this column to automotive questions of general interest. Write to Your Wheels, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053. Via e-mail: ralph.vartabedian@latimes.com.

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