In an effort to collect fines from scofflaws cited for munching on chips, playing loud music and riding without a ticket on Los Angeles County's commuter trains, officials are considering creating a special court for transit-related offenses.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority collects about $1 million a year in fines, an average of $12 per citation, mostly from passengers caught riding the rails for free. Anyone caught on board without a $1.25 fare ticket faces a fine up to $250 and 48 hours of community service.
But most of the 60,000 passengers cited each year never pay up or go to court to fight their citations, resulting in the low collection rate, according to court statistics.
Transit officials believe the agency could grab a bigger share of the money by opening its own transit court and more aggressively going after offenders who don't pay their fines.
Last fall, state lawmakers authorized the Los Angeles and San Francisco transit agencies to create administrative offices, similar to the city of Los Angeles' parking violations bureau, to punish passengers who break the rules on buses and trains. They cited New York City's Transit Adjudication Bureau, which greatly increased fine collections, as their model.
MTA board members are expected to decide later this year whether to sink $1.5 million annually into establishing and operating a transit adjudication bureau. San Francisco officials also are considering the option.
The proposal would "reduce the burden on local courts" and "provide a more streamlined, focused and efficient method of administering and adjudicating citations," said Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, a county supervisor and MTA board member.
A separate transit court also "would reinforce a strong message that the MTA places a high importance on safety, security and comfort" and "has a 'zero tolerance' for fare evasion," according to an American Public Transportation Assn. review conducted last year.
Most of the fare evasions issued annually are to passengers riding the Blue Line commuter train between downtown Los Angeles and Long Beach. Those who are caught generally are taken off the train and required to buy a ticket.
To avoid going to court, fare evaders can pay a $25 fine, which goes to the MTA, plus $92 in court costs and state-mandated assessments to clear their name.
But few do. Sheriff's deputies issued 25,502 fare evasion citations on the Blue Line between July 1, 2004, and June 30, 2005, according to the latest Los Angeles County Superior Court statistics. Less than one-quarter of people cited paid their tickets or appeared in court.
Judges issued arrest warrants for the remainder, beginning a more serious and expensive court process that can land the accused fare evader behind bars, if just for a few days. If a transit court were established, these offenses would be decriminalized and the offenders would face fines but not jail time.
Anthony Clark, 24, was caught a few months ago on a warrant for his arrest for fare evasion.
He said he had forgotten all about the ticket he got on the Blue Line three years ago. At the time, he thought he could hop on the train without getting caught. After being cited for not buying a ticket, he simply ignored the citation.
When he finally appeared before a judge last month, Clark, a security guard who is married with three children, didn't contest the violation. He was ordered to pay $370.
As with Clark, few fare evaders are jailed, even if there is a warrant against them, unless they are suspected of a more serious offense, said Greg Blair, a court administrator.
Furthermore, court officials do not use collection agencies to go after transit offenders, Blair said.
But that could change. If an adjudication bureau is established, transit officials said they would contract with debt collectors and use other methods to hold offenders accountable.
MTA officials also would set their own fines. As a result, some fare evaders, such as James Williams, 45, of Rialto, could actually end up paying less if all the added court costs were removed.
Williams, who is on dialysis and walks with a cane, was in court last month to contest his ticket. He said he had bought a 50-cent ticket for disabled riders but lost it.
Rather than return to court for a later trial date, Williams agreed to pay the fine. By the time the clerk got done with his case, the $25 fine had escalated to $80.
"It's a rip-off," he said, urging the MTA to treat its many poor passengers with more respect. "Eighty dollars for a 50-cent ticket."
Los Angeles County Superior Court has not taken a position on whether the transit-related crimes should be diverted into a new MTA-run system.
"It's up to the MTA as to what they decide to do," Blair said, noting that those relatively few cases "have no impact on us." He called the MTA cases "a drop in the bucket" of the 1.8 million citations the court processes annually, adding that the court does not get any of the money collected from those fines.
But Judge John Cheroske, who supervises the Compton court, believes moving fare evasion and other such citations into a separate transit court would be more cost-effective.
"If they were taken out of this system, it would save everyone a great deal of money," he said, listing all the people needed to open a courtroom each morning -- the judicial officer, prosecutor, public defender, bailiff, court reporter, courtroom assistant and court interpreter.
"That's a lot of resources" for transit offenses, he said.