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BEHIND THE WHEEL

At Times, Automated System May Ticket the Wrong Driver

Mistakes in identity can occur when cameras record traffic violations. Experts say the best strategy is to pay the fine, then go to court.

September 02, 2003|Sharon Bernstein | Times Staff Writer

Talk about a case of mistaken identity.

Abel Acosta lives in Bakersfield. He works nights for a rail line that runs through town.

So imagine his astonishment when he received a letter from the administrator for an Orange County toll road, demanding $1,700 in fines for allegedly failing to pay the toll on the 91 Express Lanes -- at a time when he was on the job 200 miles away.

The letter, from a New York collection agency, said the fines would increase to $14,409.65 if Acosta didn't pay up within one month.

It took the intervention of a lawyer to convince the agency that the scofflaw was not Acosta: The toll road's operator had recorded the letter "F" on the offender's license plate as a "P," according to documents in the case obtained by The Times.

"He kept telling them, 'It's not my car,' " said Dennis Beaver, the attorney who represented Acosta, but the tollway operator kept insisting that he was responsible. Finally, a check of the automatic photographs taken of the car revealed the error, and the company apologized.

Robert Lewi wasn't so lucky.

He received a letter from the city of Santa Rosa declaring that his car had been illegally parked on a street there. But on the day in question, the car had been parked all day in the parking lot of an elementary school in Bakersfield, where his wife, Sandy, was a teacher.

"I wrote a real nice letter back to the courts that my car couldn't have been there, explaining the reasons why and asking if they'd like proof," Lewi said. The city wrote back that if Lewi wanted to make his case, he'd have to drive to Santa Rosa.

He went ahead and paid the $37 fine.

"There's just no way to fight it, unless you really have the time or resources," Lewi said.

Sherman Ellison, a San Fernando Valley traffic attorney, said the most common mistakes in identity in traffic cases occur when cameras are set up to automatically record violations.

Typically, he said, such cameras are set up to photograph people who run red lights. Cities including Los Angeles, Beverly Hills and Culver City use them.

But there's a problem: The tickets in such cases are always issued against the owner of the car, even if someone else might have been driving. On the back of the ticket, there's a place to protest that it wasn't you -- but only if you turn in whoever was really driving. Which means that, to get out of an automated citation, you have to snitch on your spouse or your kid if he or she was behind the wheel.

According to Ellison, the best strategy usually is to pay the fine, which is considered bail in a traffic case, and then go to court. Typically, he said, once the judge sees that the face on the photograph is not yours, the case is dismissed.

The court might try to make you reveal who the real driver was, but in the case of a spouse, at least, that is considered privileged information, under California law.

Fighting the ticket, though, can take months and several court dates, Ellison said, including a trip to court to pay the fine and ask for a hearing, and sometimes a second trek to court for the hearing.

"This whole process has always seemed to me to be designed to discourage people from fighting tickets," Ellison said. "It really seems unfair."

There was no traffic camera involved when Lisa Sill was erroneously named as the driver in a hit-and-run accident in Los Angeles.

Sill, who owns a Volvo, was accused of driving a Jeep in the accident on La Cienega Boulevard at a time when she was sitting in her office in Santa Monica, according to court documents and letters filed with the case.

Her license was suspended, and the insurance company representing the other driver threatened legal proceedings against her.

It took three years and the assistance of an attorney to clear it up.

Robert Schiffman, who teaches anthropology at Bakersfield College, racked up $850 in legal fees to fight a mistaken-identity ticket. Earlier this summer, Schiffman received a ticket from the city of Bellflower, claiming that he had illegally parked a Ford Explorer on somebody's lawn there.

Schiffman, who had not been to Bellflower in more than a decade, was puzzled. He filled out a form on the back of the ticket, explaining that the vehicle did not belong to him. But that didn't satisfy Bellflower, whose officials wrote back that a DMV check of the car's registration had listed Schiffman as the owner, according to documents provided to The Times.

He realized that the car had been his -- but he had sold it in 1995. Schiffman went down to a DMV office in Bakersfield, where he lives, to see whether there was a problem with the record of the sale. But, according to Schiffman, there wasn't.

The DMV printout, which Schiffman provided to The Times, showed that Schiffman had sold the car and that the registered owner was a woman who lived at the very house where the vehicle had been parked on the lawn.

This still didn't satisfy officials in Bellflower, who referred again to their own check of the registration, Schiffman said.

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