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  • Posted January 9, 2017

Santa Clara County courts face massive traffic ticket backlog

PUBLISHED: January 7, 2017 at 12:00 pm | UPDATED: January 9, 2017 at 6:14 pm

Eager to take care of her speeding ticket promptly, Mercedes Munoz recently showed up at the Santa Clara courthouse — a full 10 days before the “promise to appear” deadline on her yellow citation.

But the trip was a complete waste of time for the exhausted medical-device technician from Los Banos, who’d just finished ​working ​a 6 a.m. shift in Sunnyvale. After waiting in line for nearly an hour, she was told her two-month-old traffic ticket still hadn’t been entered into the court’s computer system. That meant she wouldn’t be allowed to pay the fine, contest the citation or sign up for traffic school until the swamped clerical staff found time to type in her data.

Morgan Hill resident Mario Ramirez showed up on Jan. 4, 2017, at the Santa Clara traffic court to take care of his speeding ticket, but the clerks hadn’t typed it into the system yet. Until the ticket is entered, he cannot resolve the matter in any way, meaning he can’t pay the fine, ask to go to traffic school or fight it in court. (Tracey Kaplan/Bay Area News Group)

“Keep checking back,’’ a counter clerk told her, “or you’ll be in a real mess.’’

Thousands of other motorists in Santa Clara County are facing the same indefinite, anxiety-producing delays that bar them from resolving their tickets​,​ whether they’ve been cited for a broken taillight, speeding, running a stop sign or talking on a cellphone.

That’s because even though police issue more than 2,000 traffic tickets every week in the county, budget cutbacks have prompted court officials to assign only one clerk full​ ​time to ​entering the data — and she’s as many as 12,000 tickets behind.

The other clerks are supposed to pitch in and help clear the massive backlog, but they say they’ve been too busy dealing with questions and complaints from hordes of confused and angry motorists, who have been flooding the court with phone calls and queuing up in long lines that sometimes snake outside the courthouse.

“It’s been nothing but chaos,’’ said deputy public defender Gary Goodman, whose office in Palo Alto has been getting complaints about the situation.

Court officials acknowledge the backlog is a big problem and say they are taking steps to address it. Among other things, they are hiring two new clerks, who are expected to begin helping out sometime next month. They’re also going to revise their website so people understand that they can check online to see whether their ticket has been entered into the system before going to the courthouse.

​In the long run, Santa Clara County court administrators may outsourc​e the ticket data entry, a cost-saving step most urban counties, including Alameda, Contra Costa, San Mateo and San Francisco, already have taken.

But the pile of tickets stacked in the back room of the Santa Clara courthouse is just one of many paperwork logjams plaguing the court. Since 2008, administrators have slashed the staff by a third in response to state cuts in court funding and the redistribution of its reserves to needier courts in California.

As a result, more than 3,500 civil judgments haven’t been entered into the court’s computer system either, creating problems for people who want to collect their awards or file an appeal. The court is also six months behind in processing record clearances. And defense attorneys complain that their requests for the court records necessary to proceed with criminal appeals languish for as long as nine months.

“The reduction in funding is preventing us from doing public service the way we want,’’ said the court’s new presiding judge, Patricia Lucas. “We can’t get everything done without the people we need.’’

But the cuts have been particularly devastating for the traffic division. In late 2014, the administration closed the traffic courts in Palo Alto and Morgan Hill, consolidating most traffic cases in Santa Clara. That enabled the administration to reduce the traffic staff by 43 percent, according to the union that represents the clerks.

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In contrast, Contra Costa County eliminated its ticket backlog by hiring a nonprofit contractor in 2014 to enter about 120,000 tickets a year into the system, about 17,000 fewer than those issued in Santa Clara County. The court pays for the service by collecting an extra $12.50 fee on traffic school students.

“At the end of the day when the lights go out, virtually every single traffic ticket has been processed,’’ said Stephen Nash, Contra Costa County Superior Court’s chief executive officer.

Other trial courts, including in San Francisco and Alameda counties, have been contracting out for more than a decade, drawing on their own funds.

​Court officials in Santa Clara County had announced in November that they were going to seek quotes from private contractors, but they haven’t proceeded with the plan, partly because they haven’t identified how they would pay for the service.​ Assistant Presiding Judge Deborah A. Ryan expressed concern about increasing the traffic school fee, noting that tickets are already extremely costly, typically about $360 or more for speeding.​

​Contracting out would be cheaper than paying for more clerical workers, who typically have higher salaries and benefits. But the court says it is so short-handed that it can’t afford to ​get rid of more clerks through attrition and use the money for outsourcing. The traffic clerks would be reassigned if they go ahead with the plan.

Meanwhile, people keep showing up at the courthouse, often more than once. Normally, after receiving a citation, drivers get a notice in the mail from the court indicating the ticket has been entered into the court system and stating options they must choose to resolve it within 60 days.

They can admit the violation and pay the fine (online, by check or in person). They can contest it by mail, in which case they must first pay the fine but could receive a full or partial refund if the court later decides in their favor. Or they can come to the courthouse and request a court date to contest the charge, in which case they would not have to pay the fine up front.

Mario Ramirez displays the back of his speeding ticket on Jan. 4, 2017, which shows that a clerk has stamped it in red ink, indicating that he showed up to take care of the citation but it has not yet been entered in the court’s computer system. (Tracey Kaplan/Bay Area News Group)

But there’s no point in showing up at the courthouse if the ticket hasn’t been entered into the system. In that case, the clerks will merely stamp the back of their citations in red ink, indicating the cited drivers showed up and urging them to check back in about a month.

Judge Lucas said that once the ticket is entered, cited motorists have a full 60 days from that date to resolve their ticket. They can check the court website to find out the ticket’s status, she said, advising “just don’t panic.’’

But motorists like Yong Dang say they’re afraid they’ll wind up owing huge fines if the ticket is entered but doesn’t show up online. Dang has showed up twice already on behalf of his mother to deal with her ticket.

“You want to stay ahead of the game,’’ he said.

Others question why the court doesn’t just scan in the tickets rather than have a clerk manually type in more than 20 pieces of information, ranging from the defendant’s name, hair color and birth date to the officer’s badge number.

“We’re in Silicon Valley,’’ said realtor Kevin Tsang, who got a ticket two months ago that still hasn’t been entered into the system. “Why do we have to do it at all with paper?’’

But ​no technology has been developed yet that is capable of reading a police officer’s often-illegible or oversized handwriting, court officials throughout the state say. Police departments are ​only beginning to purchase the ​equipment necessary to enter the data electronically at the scene of the traffic stop, which would eliminate the court’s burden.

Some ticket holders are so frustrated that they’ve yelled at the clerks, requiring sheriff’s deputies who staff the courthouse to intervene. ​Others seem to enjoy tormenting clerks, union leaders said, including a man who was so annoyed that when his ticket was finally entered into the system, he returned to the courthouse ​and paid his $400 fines in crisp new singles, forcing ​multiple clerks to count the money to make sure it was all there.

“The level of frustration with the long lines and the backlog of cases has reached a boiling point, leading to many scary and at times dangerous situations,’’ said Kim Palmer, one of the leaders of Superior Court Professional Employees Association, which represents the clerks.

But others, like Munoz, are more resigned than angry.

“I guess I’ll have to come back again,’’ she said, sighing at the prospect of being stuck in rush-hour traffic during the 90-mile drive back home to Los Banos.