Why is ticket fixing such an enduring and deeply offensive form of corruption? The question arises because of the most recent allegations in the scandal-plagued city of San Fernando, where the former police chief apparently had a ticket dismissed for an aide to then-U.S. Rep. Howard Berman who had been stopped for running a stop sign in late 2011.
At the time, the aide, Fred Flores, was the liaison between Berman and the San Fernando Police Department. According to a memo by a Los Angeles County deputy district attorney, Flores berated the police officer who stopped him and then called acting-Chief Jeff Eley’s cellphone. “Oh my God, do you know who this is?” Eley asked the officer, the memo notes. He took the citation and subsequently asked a court to dismiss it. The D.A.'s office investigated but ultimately did not prosecute.
Ticket fixing is nothing new in Southern California, but it’s every bit as repugnant as it ever was. References to it in The Times go back to at least the 1930s. In 1955, the paper described it as a “tenacious and widespread evil” that posed a danger to traffic safety, and asserted that the fixing of tickets “has become so linked with the political patronage system that many people despair of eliminating it.” Three decades later, responding to a scandal in San Diego, a Times editorial decried “the arrogant presumption on the part of those who have gotten the tickets that life owes them a free ride,” and argued that police should uphold the law and “not use it the way a salesman uses desk calendars to curry favor.”
In the years since, there have been ticket-fixing cases in Long Beach, San Diego, Beverly Hills and Orange County, among other places. Parking and traffic tickets have been dismissed or otherwise made to disappear by judges, police officers and clerks. Why do they do it? Sometimes in return for bribes; other times to help friends or to ingratiate themselves with people in important positions.
Los Angeles’ infamous Gold Card Desk — a little-known service that got parking citations dismissed or fees reduced — flourished for 15 years until it was shut down after a 2011 audit warned of its potential for abuse. An L.A. Times review of tickets later showed city officials had sometimes used it to help politically connected people. And last year an Orange County judge was removed from the bench by the state’s Commission on Judicial Performance after being accused of waiving traffic fines for friends, co-workers and his minister. (He apologized.)
Of course, a police officer has some discretion in deciding whether to cite a driver, and judges have some leeway in deciding who should pay. And who among us hasn’t tried to take advantage of that flexibility by talking, crying, whining or fawning his or her way out of a ticket?
But dismissing tickets purely as a favor to a friend, crony or high-ranking official is nothing but corruption. Not only does it cheat municipalities out of legitimate revenue and allow people who broke the rules — often safety rules — to go unpunished, but it means that the law is applied unequally. The state commission that removed the Orange County judge said that his misconduct created “both the appearance and reality of a two-track system of justice — one for his family and friends and another for all others.”
And that’s really hard to fix.