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Illegible Traffic Tickets in Vt. Get Dismissed

Monday, March 24, 2014
More than 9,000 traffic tickets last year were dismissed by police or the court, in some cases because officers’ handwriting was illegible, Department of Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn said last week.

The number of traffic fines issued statewide is declining, while the percentage dismissed, either by the court or police, is rising.

In fiscal year 2013, law enforcement officers — game wardens, sheriffs, municipal police and state troopers — wrote 83,681 traffic tickets, according to data from Flynn. Of those, 11 percent were dismissed.

In fiscal year 2011, 9 percent of the 91,743 tickets written were dismissed. In FY2012, 10 percent of the 86,676 tickets were dismissed.

“That’s a substantial number of tickets,” Flynn said.

The ticket decline and the dismissals have had a negative impact on the budget of the Vermont Center for Crime Victim Services, which provides compensation for victims.

E-ticketing is one option officials are considering to cut down on ticket errors, but an electronic system could take at least two years to implement, officials say.

State police, the agency Flynn’s department oversees, last year wrote approximately 28 percent of the tickets in the state. The rest were written by local departments, sheriffs and other law enforcement agencies.

Flynn last week originally told lawmakers in the House Appropriations Committee that 20 percent of all tickets written were illegible. He later clarified his remarks, saying 10 percent of tickets written were dismissed, by courts or the state.

Court officials Friday said they process all tickets they receive. The court can dismiss a ticket if a hearing magistrate rules in favor of a driver, or if an officer settles with the driver and dismisses a ticket, for example.

“Every complaint that is filed with the court is processed,” said Gabrielle Lapointe, clerk of the court at the Vermont Judicial Bureau, which has statewide jurisdiction over civil violations including traffic tickets.

Police may also choose not to file a traffic ticket complaint, but the court doesn’t receive a record of that, Lapointe said.

The Department of Public Safety is trying to determine why some tickets were dismissed, Flynn said. His data came from the Governor’s Highway Safety Program, the state police and an electronic ticketing study committee.

Lawmakers have included language in the budget bill this year instructing the court administrator’s office to gather information about the number of traffic tickets written in Vermont, how many were not able to be processed and the amount of fines uncollected as a result, said Rep. Peter Fagan, R-Rutland, a member of the House Committee on Appropriations.

Rep. Anne O’Brien, D-Richmond, said law enforcement should be held to the same standard set for other state agencies that have struggled with quality control. She compared the ticket dismissal rate to the high error rates reported for the food stamps program, and, she said, the cost of the errors should come out of law enforcement budgets.

The decline in traffic tickets has had a ripple effect. A portion of the revenue from the $47 surcharge on traffic tickets and court fines funds the Vermont Center for Crime Victim Services.

A December 2013 report to the Legislature said the center next year expects a budget gap in part because of the declining number of traffic tickets.

Flynn said electronic ticketing would cut down on the number of tickets that can’t be processed because of bad handwriting or a pen that freezes in cold weather.

“Any time that you have human interaction with a piece of paper it provides an opportunity for something to go wrong,” Flynn said.

Electronic systems allow officers to scan a driver’s license and registration. The information automatically populates an electronic form and uploads to a database.

One impediment is the lack of Internet access in some parts of the state, Flynn said, but cost shouldn’t be a concern.

“We expect that over a period of time that there would actually be cost benefit to it,” Flynn said.

Robert Ide, commissioner of the Department of Motor Vehicles, Friday also said electronic ticketing is smart.

“It doesn’t matter how much it’s going to cost, it’s going to save,” Ide said.

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