Did you blow a red light, then blow off the ticket? Watch out!
Scofflaws who had ignored citations were never punished. Judges and police have changed policies and now say they will follow up.
By JENNIFER MUIR
THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
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SANTA ANA – Thousands of motorists who ignored their red light camera tickets and thought they got away with it might have a nasty surprise.
The Orange County Superior Court has axed its policy of dismissing unpaid red light camera tickets if they aren't paid after a year. Thousands of tickets that were accumulating in its database are eligible to be sent back to the jurisdictions where the tickets were issued so police can track down the scofflaws.
Those changes follow an Orange County Register investigation that found that as many as 25,000 motorists had gotten away without paying their tickets since 2004. The court's policy and inaction by several police departments meant that only honest motorists who paid their tickets got fined and points added to their license.
That's changed in recent months, as both police and the courts have been doing their part to track down those who don't pay, court spokeswoman Carole Levitzky said.
"If the old joke was that you're just going to throw it away and it will never come back to you, it will be a rude awakening for some people," Superior Court Judge Thomas Borris said.
The court hasn't decided how far back it will dip into its database to find unresolved cases, but it hopes to begin the work by the end of the year. More than 19,000 unpaid citations from 2005-2007 remain in the courts data, worth as much as $6.9 million in fines.
Court officials plan to meet with police in coming weeks to review the new rules.
Still, the scofflaws can't be fined or receive a mark on their driving records unless police verify the person ticketed was the person driving the car and file additional paperwork in court.
"At least this way, we're giving cops the option: Do you want to pursue a ticket, here it is. If you don't, we'll dump it," Borris said. "If police officers don't have the manpower, I'm not going to put a hold on the person's driver's license."
The cases have a one-year statute of limitations, but Borris said older cases still could be prosecuted if a judge finds the motorist didn't have a legitimate reason for not responding to the ticket.
Red light camera citations are tricky to pursue in California because they're moving violations attached to a driver's record. Elsewhere, citations are handled like parking tickets, and the vehicle owner is held responsible.
Police in California still have to rely on registration information to figure out who to ticket and where to mail it. Sometimes, vehicle owners are ticketed even though they're not the ones caught blowing through the red light.
Most cited in Orange County pay their tickets or identify who was driving if it wasn't them. But when someone doesn't respond, the court won't assess fines or put a hold on the person's DMV records until police confirm they ticketed the correct person.
In February, only one of the county's seven red light camera cities – Fullerton – was doing that follow-up work, according to the court.
The court's new policy clarifies each agency's role in holding these motorists accountable: Now the court is regularly sending lists of unpaid tickets to police, and police are regularly verifying the identity of the drivers who haven't paid their citations and returning the appropriate paperwork to court, Levitzky said.
Superior Court CEO Alan Slater earlier this year discussed the possibility of fining every person who ignored their tickets, regardless of who was driving. But court officials decided against that.
"We don't want to add a civil assessment for failure to appear because what if it's not you?" Borris said.
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