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CONSUMERS : Avoiding Jam: Act Fast on Traffic Tickets

Times Staff Writer

Between February, 1988, and February, 1989, there were 2.1 million moving- or equipment-violation tickets issued in Los Angeles and Orange counties. In Los Angeles County alone last year, there were 6 million parking citations passed out.

No matter what kind of ticket you get, though, there’s simple advice for dealing with it: Don’t ignore it because it won’t go away. And if you don’t deal with it promptly, chances are it will cost you more money, a possible suspension of your driver’s license, a hold on your car registration or maybe even some jail time.

In Los Angeles, it’s unlikely you’ll do time for failing to pay parking tickets. But the courts do advise the Department of Motor Vehicles about motorists’ failure to pay; that agency can put a hold on an auto registration until fines are paid.

If parking fines go unpaid beyond the date on the ticket, the assessment usually doubles, that $28 fine increasing to $56. You can mail in parking tickets with checks for fines, or they can be contested before a traffic judge.

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In the case of moving violations, traffic school may be a good option. If cited for a moving violation, you can usually sign up for traffic school if you haven’t attended within the last year or have many prior convictions on your record. Your ticket must relate to the car’s operation; you can’t go to traffic school for failing to wear a seat belt.

‘Go to Traffic School’

“I always suggest they go to traffic school, if it’s a first offense or they haven’t been to one within the last 12 months,” said Helen Nelson, division chief of the Los Angeles Municipal Court Traffic Division downtown, one of 24 judicial districts in Los Angeles County. “If they’re worried about their (DMV) record or insurance, that’s what they should do. If you go to traffic school, you don’t have to pay the fine, the ticket doesn’t go on your driving record and your insurance doesn’t increase.”

Most insurers, industry officials said, will increase your premium when it’s time to renew your auto insurance if your DMV record shows a moving violation. This could cost you more than the ticket itself.

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If, for example, you are cited for zipping 70 m.p.h. in a 55 m.p.h. zone, you’ll pay $35 for the citation, plus a $54 state penalty (it’s assessed for special projects and is $13.50 on every $10 of your fine), bringing the total to $90. But when your insurer sees the violation on your record, the company probably will raise your premium, perhaps as much as $100 a year.

In Los Angeles, the court sets a deadline for attending and charges a $24 administrative fee for those opting for traffic schools from approved lists. Students also must pay the school fees, ranging from $12 to $40. After attending the courses, usually eight hours for adults and 12 hours for juveniles, offenders must return a certificate of completion to the court.

If you’re ineligible for the traffic school alternative, there are other options:

-- You can appear in traffic court (you must go to the division designated), plead guilty and pay the bail to the court. The infraction will be listed on your DMV record.

If you get an equipment citation or “fix-it ticket,” say for bald tires or a broken taillight, you must pay the fine and go to court to show a marshal that repairs have been made.

If you lacked proof of insurance when cited, you must provide appropriate documents, appearing with an insurance identification or mailing a copy to the court. The DMV can suspend your license if you don’t have insurance.

-- For most minor citations, you can mail bail to the court, though you may need to appear to inquire to learn the amount. It will not be listed on the ticket and many courts will not give that information over the phone, though some send courtesy notices listing it. Usually, the police officer who ticketed you can tell you if the court sends courtesy notices.

But don’t wait beyond the appearance date listed on your ticket to deal with it. Once you do, your fines and penalties can increase. You also can be charged with failure to appear and the court can issue an arrest warrant for you.

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Making a Plea

-- You can go to court and plead guilty “with an explanation,” meaning you can tell a judge or commissioner about extenuating circumstances connected with your citation. The judge then can lower fines or even dismiss the citation.

-- You can plead innocent and request a trial before a judge; because of the legal nature of 98% of tickets, there rarely are jury trials in such cases.

If you plead innocent, you can go to court before or on the appearance date on your ticket. But after entering your plea, you must post bail, usually the same amount as your possible fine, and have a trial date assigned.

You may mail a written plea, along with a check for bail. But it must be postmarked at least five days before your specified appearance date. Be sure to use registered or certified mail to make sure the plea is delivered.

The court orders the police officer who cited you to appear for trial but “a lot of people will gamble and hope the officer won’t show up,” said Joellen Holland, principal clerk in Los Angeles’ Traffic Court, noting that if the officer fails to appear, your case is dismissed and bail refunded.

For juveniles, the rules are tougher. Although minors are treated as adults in most Orange County courts, in Los Angeles County, all juveniles receiving a moving violation citation must appear in court with parent or guardian or another relative over age 25.

Juvenile Traffic Court in Los Angeles, with 13 branches, is under the jurisdiction of the county Superior Court, meaning, “We don’t permit juveniles to post bail, they have to appear here even on a bicycle citation,” said Leo J. Moriarty, supervising referee. “They come in with the parent and see one of the traffic referees. Sometimes they’ll get a fine, or warning or reprimand, or even a short suspension of their license. The fees are similar to what adults would pay.” Like adults, juveniles may plead guilty “with an explanation.”

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Juveniles may opt for traffic schools--there are special ones for them--so they won’t have a record. A speeding ticket, for instance, could send their parents to the poorhouse trying to pay the stiff, accompanying insurance rates.

A new state law that took effect in January is particularly tough on juveniles in cars where there’s alcohol or drugs. The law is so strict that a even a juvenile passenger in a car can be cited for holding an unopened beer. If convicted, the law requires that the minor’s license be suspended for a year. If not old enough for a license, juveniles are not permitted to get one for a year after eligibility at age 16.


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