Erroneous ticket drives motorist to distraction

Citation: A Severn resident finds himself on an unexpected odyssey through a maddening bureaucratic maze.

April 18, 2002|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

Charles Ricketts opened his mail two Saturdays ago to find a traffic citation with supposedly foolproof evidence that he had run a red light.

The enclosed photo, taken at 4:48 p.m. March 26 by an enforcement camera at Reisterstown Road and Menlo Drive, showed a dark purple Dodge Caravan with Maryland license plate M182782. Ricketts drives a dark green Plymouth Voyager with an almost identical Maryland plate - M182781.

A simple check of motor vehicle records by the city should have gotten him off the hook.

"It ought to be pretty clear," said the 50-year-old Severn resident, who works for the Department of Defense. "They have my license plate number, they have the number in the photo. They're not the same. I'm not sure what the problem would be."

But Ricketts has a problem that won't seem to go away. Instead of getting a quick dismissal, Ricketts has spent the past 10 days on the phone and writing letters and e-mail to city officials, to no avail.

At the same time, a Randallstown real estate agent has been checking his mailbox, awaiting the ticket he expected after the camera photographed him running a red light March 26.

By late yesterday, the fine collection office in the city's Abel Wolman building downtown had not resolved the matter.

"We're checking into this to see if the ticket was misread or what actually occurred," said Jennifer Sproul, collections division manager. She said she had not seen the ticket.

Generally, she said her office would quickly dismiss a ticket if the person cited and the car in the photo didn't match, though she can't recall it happening before.

How could such a mistake occur? The company that operates the cameras is wondering, too.

Officials at Washington, D.C.-based ACS State and Local Solutions speculate that their employees might have made identical typographical errors during a two-phase verification system designed to detect mistakes. Both times, apparently, they entered Ricketts' plate number, an error described as extremely rare.

"Who knows how many times in a million this might happen," said Phyllis Guss, a company spokeswoman. Had Ricketts' van been less similar in appearance to the one that ran the light, the error might have been caught, she said. But because the color of the van in the photo wasn't clear, "the differences weren't visible."

Company officials said such a blatant error should be quickly remedied.

Beyond imagining

Whatever the reason for the original error, Ricketts remained frustrated yesterday in his efforts to get it corrected.

"I thought it would be complicated, but this has exceeded my imagination even," he said.

Twice while trying to call the fine collection office for help, he says, he was kept on hold for more than an hour. Those attempts were among many other unsuccessful bids to get through because the lines were always busy. A call to the mayor's office for help yielded an alternate phone number and an e-mail address for the department. But he had trouble getting through on the second line as well.

Sproul, head of the office, says its phone system can't handle more than 2,000 incoming calls a day and will be replaced next month.

Ricketts managed to leave a voice message and sent an e-mail explaining his problem. Three days later, on April 11, he received a return phone call - his first contact with a real person.

He says a customer service clerk told him that the department could not begin reviewing the citation for seven to 10 days because it had to wait for the photos to be forwarded by ACS. But ACS and Sproul say the city has ready access that typically requires no more than a day to review pictures.

Choose fine or court

Meanwhile, a deadline loomed. Ricketts could either pay the $75 fine or request a court date. He might have no choice but to go to court, the customer service clerk informed him. After hanging up, he went to see a lawyer.

That night, Ricketts and his wife, Helen, worked until midnight drafting letters to the district court and to the collections office.

"I believe it is grossly unfair that I might be required to appear in court over such an obvious error," he wrote. He attached copies of his registration, requested a court date (just to be safe) and simultaneously asked that the ticket be dismissed. By his account, he spent most of Monday, some of Tuesday, the first half of Wednesday and the last half of Thursday last week trying to reach someone to clear up the confusion.

Before leaving work this past Tuesday, Ricketts said, he received a second call from the parking fine office.

"The woman asked me for my plate number, and I could hear her typing it in," he said. "She said, `Keith Patillo?' I said, `That's not me.' Then she told me they were still studying it. She just wanted to let me know."

In the meantime, Keith Patillo, 33, owner of the dark purple van bearing license plate M182782, was oblivious to Ricketts' predicament.

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