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Sacramento Man Has a Ticket to Deride

Ex-rail worker, 82, has tried for five months to clear his name over an unpaid L.A. citation.

August 20, 2004|Gabrielle Banks | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — The day he got notice about an unpaid parking ticket from Los Angeles, Dominick Puma of Sacramento had a good laugh. After all, he last visited the city by train, in 1951.

But for the 82-year-old former railroad worker, the five-month quest to clear his name has been anything but funny.

"What griped me was they said I had to pay the fine first, before I took it to court," he said.

The trouble started when Puma decided not to pay. He said flying to L.A. to appeal in person was preposterous.

"I would have gone to jail if I had to. I was so damn teed off on this thing I was thinking of going to see this guy [Bill] Lockyer, the attorney general."

Puma was up against the city of Los Angeles, where wading through the bureaucratic thicket to challenge a parking citation -- the hearings, the automated call centers, the five-hour waits in plastic bucket seats -- can be daunting.

The 500-plus traffic officers in Los Angeles currently issue 3.2 million parking tickets per year, generating $107 million in revenue, said Robert Andalon, who oversees parking management for the city.

Drivers contest 10% of those tickets, but very few who complain follow through with the process. Of those who go to court, about half get their cases dismissed, Andalon said.

Some seasoned ticket recipients say innocence becomes a mere technicality that isn't always worth fighting for. If you've got the money, it's easier to just write a check.

Puma's citation, issued Feb. 9, was for a black Ford truck. Puma drives a tan Ford Escort, and he can document that he was at a Sacramento dentist's office with his grandson that day.

Puma requested an administrative review, but officials told him the bureau would not consider an appeal until he paid the penalty.

In the meantime, the fine increased from $25 to $81 and the letters mentioned the possibility of car booting or impoundment if he didn't pay up.

The case slipped through the cracks, said Andalon, because both Puma and the guilty party drove Fords, the officer copied down a license that matched Puma's plates and Puma's vehicle identification number (VIN) matched part of the guilty party's VIN.

The ticket came to Andalon's attention because Puma took his story to a Sacramento Bee columnist. Someone at the Los Angeles city attorney's office heard about the story and called Andalon.

"This is a mistake that shouldn't have happened, but it's one of those rare instances. It was a strange coincidence," Andalon said.

But consumer advocate Harvey Rosenfield is unimpressed with the city's response. "There's a serious problem with a system that gives incentives to parking officers and police to issue citations," Rosenfield said. "You have to prove you are innocent. If it's clearly a mistake a ticket was issued, there ought to be a way to fix that and there ought to be particular dispensation given to people outside of Los Angeles County."

"I hope it's over," Puma said. "With all the trouble I went through, you'd think you would get a letter of apology saying it was a mistake. I lost a lot of sleep over this thing."

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