Here's Just The Ticket: Fix Baltimore Traffic Court

November 15, 2009|By Mike Schaefer

Each day, the District Court at 700 E. Patapsco St. has a roomful of parking ticket culprits who feel they are not guilty, or cannot afford the fines and penalties, or are gambling on the officer not showing up (so they win by default). About a dozen enforcement officers spend one to two hours to see that justice is done.

The judge (with a $127,252 salary) is supported by two clerks and two bailiffs (the latter costing $35,000 a year each). Some judges are in good moods, some not; this is generally the least-desired of judicial assignments. Some arrive on time, some a half-hour or more late, often without apology or explanation.

If I were King for a Day, the system would be revamped as follows:

* The enforcement officers would not be subpoened to appear; they would be expected to stay on the street and write their usual dozen-tickets-per-hour each instead of vegetating in a crowded courtroom. These new tickets would produce $500 per officer. For a dozen officers, that's $6,000 to help with Mayor Sheila Dixon's budget. (Citizens would still have to pay the fine or request a hearing.)

* One bailiff is enough. Rent Court downtown done fine with one bailiff. And all other courts at 501 E. Fayette operate with but one office to keep the peace. This would save $35,000 per courtroom.

* Replace the $127,252 judge with a referee or commissioner, as is common throughout the United States. These officials, usually attorneys but sometimes laymen, are paid maybe $40 an hour for a couple hours' duty. If it were both morning and afternoon court, four days a week - little happens on Fridays - that is eight times $80 gigs, or $640 a week, or some $35,000 a year, saving almost $100,000 per courtroom. (How much education and talent does it take to determine: guilty or not guilty - on a parking ticket?

* Repeal the city law that makes parking fines nondischargeable in bankruptcy. California considers them a civil dispute, and dischargeable; Baltimore considers them like unpaid taxes or child support that must be paid unless you die first.

* Recognize that these are "criminal" matters warranting an $80 fee to seek a new trial in Circuit Court, instead of the $105 civil fee required. Or create a special $40 fee - twice filing fee for small claims court - since most disputes involve less than $40.

The best part of this new system: With no parking officers to testify, the citizen will almost always win. But ... will they really?

Consider: The "culprit" has taken a half day off from work or family errands to travel to 700 E. Patapsco, wait for a resolution, and return home. That time is valuable.

Consider, too, that the parking defendant is not sure if a witness will be there and has usually spent time preparing a defense and thinking about his/her possible error. The hapless motorists will have to speak to the judge (or referee/commissioner), which itself is intimidating, and will have to submit to the court's lecture, tongue-lashing, sympathy, warning or constructive advice. All in the public interest - and always time consuming.

The status quo is simply too costly - for the city and for the "guilty" motorists.

Mike Schaefer is a retired attorney, former city prosecutor and a downtown resident. He has received many parking tickets and experienced a couple dozen hearings in Baltimore's parking court. His e-mail is mike2004@comcast.net.

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