Many Valley commuters are unknowingly driving on suspended licenses - victims of a flawed photo enforcement system. Will yours be next?
When single mother of four Brandi Mooney, 33, pulled her Ford Explorer to the side of the road on September 26, she wasn't sure why Phoenix police had stopped her. When she was asked to step out of her vehicle,
Mooney was even more confused. She was soon sitting in a Phoenix jail, under arrest for driving on a suspended license, normally just a citable offense.
Mooney's license had been suspended 20 days earlier, the same day she renewed her registration with the MVD, but Mooney says she knew nothing of the Loop 101 photo citation that resulted in the suspension of her license.
Mooney is not the first Valley driver to learn during a routine traffic stop that she was driving on a suspended license. The current system of photo ticket prosecution is resulting in the suspension of numerous drivers' licenses without the drivers' knowledge. Some learn of their suspended licenses by mail, others by a traffic police officer. All agree: in addition to the time and money lost trying to reinstate their licenses, unknown suspensions leave Valley residents feeling like victims of an impersonal and unjust system.
The MVD reports about 37,000 Arizona drivers' licenses were suspended by default judgments in 2005, after accused drivers didn't show up in court to contest the citations. But more drivers are saying they didn't appear in court because they never knew about the ticket or the court date.
As it stands, photo ticket enforcement sometimes suspends the licenses of innocent drivers, and some of those drivers are entirely unaware of the allegations against them. Private and government agencies cite a patchwork of laws to issue tickets that are technically legal. All the while, some residents never even know about the charges which can result in license suspensions, heavy fines and days in court. For them, justice is not being served.
This Could Be You
When Scottsdale resident Sherri Zanoff found a letter from the MVD
in her mailbox, she figured her registration must be coming due. Zanoff
opened the letter to learn her license had been suspended. As she
perused the paper trail of notifications, none of which she'd seen
before, she noticed one date in particular.
|You could be driving
on a suspended license if…
If you were out of the country while a process
server “served” your citation, you could be driving
on a suspended license, a crime. Such was the case
for Scottsdale resident Sherri Zanoff.
If you were not the one driving your vehicle
and followed the instructions set forth on the citation
for submitting proof, you could still have your
license suspended. Such was the case for Chandler
resident John Wilantowicz after the Scottsdale court
“misfiled” his paperwork.
If you were not the driver and the speeding
vehicle was not registered in your name, a judge
may still find you guilty and suspend your license.
This happened to Lydia D’Agosto.
*All three of these cases were overturned in
superior court rulings. The falsely accused had
to hire attorneys to appeal their cases. ;
On March 10, 2005, when Zanoff was supposedly served by a process server, she had been on a plane to Costa Rica. Zanoff then figured it would be easy enough to go to court and show a judge she was out of the country at the time. While the Scottsdale judge said her story was "believable," he refused to withdraw the suspension from her license. Zanoff then had to hire an attorney and appeal her case in the Maricopa County Superior Court.
The superior court overturned all of Scottsdale's judgments and fines, but only after Zanoff's investment of time and nearly $1,000. Zanoff's is one of numerous unjust citations resulting from the automated mechanics of photo ticket enforcement. Traveling, being hospitalized or moving can land Arizona residents with suspended licenses, even if they weren't the driver in the photographed speeding vehicle.
Cases like Zanoff's reveal injustices squeaking by as "legal" in process serving and Scottsdale court photo ticket decisions. "I had to get rides from the court to the MVD, to an attorney, back to court, all without a driver's license," Zanoff says. To this day, she says she hasn't seen the original photo ticket that launched the fiasco, and her auto insurance rates have yet to recover.
Humans and Machines
If Valley residents would stop traveling out of state, speeding in friends' cars, going to the hospital or moving, the current photo ticket system may work just fine. In its current state, any of these everyday activities could land drivers in Zanoff's position.
The ideal process of photo-radar enforcement is on the surface simple. Redflex, a private company engaged by the city, snaps the photo and mails the ticket. The accused speeder then sends a check to the city. Redflex receives about half the money collected as a commission.
The problems occur when humans act like humans. If an alleged speeder is out of the country, has moved addresses or is in the hospital, the court considers the letter ignored and sends a legal process server, who gets paid per delivered citation.
By state law, the process server can leave the citation at an individual's home "with some person of suitable age and discretion then residing therein."
The server then submits a delivery affidavit to the court, even if the process server left the citation on the porch, with the landscaper or with a nine-year-old. A hearing date is then scheduled, and when the registered vehicle owners don't show, their licenses are suspended, even if they never knew of the citation and even if they weren't the actual the drivers.
Scottsdale's two photo ticket judges, Hebert Pierpan and Ray Taylor, see thousands of photo ticket cases every month. Every ignored or challenged ticket of Scottsdale's nearly 140,000 estimated photo tickets from 2006 will pass under one of their two gavels. Needless to say, it's unrealistic for the judges to scrutinize each "served" citation.
The common advice to ignore mailed photo tickets, while technically legal, is at the root of many suspended licenses. The resulting deliveries from process servers land many accused speeders with a suspended license. If the process server hears or even smells human activity at the residence, he can attach the citation to the front door and move on to his next stop. If the drivers never actually see the ticket, their licenses will be suspended when they fail to show up in court.
Jeff Evert, president of the Arizona Process Servers Association and one of 548 registered process servers in Maricopa County, is familiar with complaints from photo ticket deliveries. "I have gotten a call more than once from people who were served with a photo-radar ticket and say they never saw it," he says. Evert adds that some companies bid municipal serving contracts down as low as $7 or $9 per accepted delivery. Process servers working at that low rate of pay may not be as aware of the law.
"If a person just tossed it on the ground, they might get away with it once," Evert says. "But after the second or third time, their license would get yanked. They're not going to get away with it."
Process server Sheila Cahil says Arizona residents need to read the state law. "Every state has its own process serving laws. Some people have moved here from other states and think they have to be served in person or sign for it to be legal. That's never been the case in Arizona."
Technically, any "suitable" resident at the address can be served. The ambiguities of "suitable" and "residing" result in a number of cases where drivers never end up seeing the citation.
In Zanoff's case, it is unclear how anyone from her residence could have been served, considering she lived alone and was out of the country when the process server knocked on her door.
At her initial hearing, Zanoff showed her flight ticket stubs and explained she was in Costa Rica. The judge then pushed her license suspension through anyway. "Taking the photo-radar out of it, no matter what I did, I was defaulted for being supposedly served," Zanoff says.
As it stands, drivers like Zanoff can be "legally served" a court date notification and still never know about the citation.
"If you don't like photo-radar, don't speed." This is advice 60-year-old Lydia D'Agosto used to give photo-radar complainers. Then Scottsdale Judge Herbert Pierpan suspended D'Agosto's license even though she was never photographed speeding.
D'Agosto appeared in court to prove she was not the 35-year-old, black-haired driver of a Mini Cooper cited for speeding. D'Agosto is 60, has curly, light hair and drives a van. She did not own the speeding vehicle and was clearly not the driver.
D'Agosto's daughter, who has a different legal name, had registered the car at her mother's address. As a result, the 60-year-old grandmother's license was suspended after 40 years of driving without a single traffic infraction.
During her trial, Judge Pierpan pushed D'Agosto's default license suspension through even though she was physically present and clearly not the driver. D'Agosto says the Scottsdale judge ignored the facts altogether. The superior court agreed with her appeal, reversing all judgments, fines and defaults, but D'Agosto's justice came at a cost of $1,000 paid to a traffic attorney and hundreds more in court fees.
"It's unfortunate that most people do not want to fight it," D'Agosto says of the Scottsdale traffic courts. "The court system as a result just takes advantage of that. It's disheartening to see that people are getting tickets for something they didn't do," D'Agosto adds. "Think of all the people who can't afford to fight it."
D'Agosto says the most infuriating step in the process was standing before a judge, expecting justice, and feeling ignored. "They just rubber stamp. They don't even hear what you're saying," D'Agosto says. "Judges need to know people are looking over their shoulders."
Given the opportunity to comment on this case and on photo citations in general, Scottsdale Judges Pierpan and Taylor replied to The Times saying neither of them comment on court decisions or practices.
The Final Line of Offence
Scottsdale's two photo enforcement judges, Pierpan and Taylor, are the final line of justice at the city level for any of the almost 140,000 photo tickets snapped on Scottsdale's Loop 101 or surface streets in 2006. Those tickets have been issued to many drivers residing outside of Scottsdale making regular use of the 101 freeway.
Those wanting to catch a first-hand glimpse of the proceedings taking place in the Scottsdale city courtrooms may enjoy sitting in some afternoon, listening as photographed drivers from Apache Junction to Anthem plead their cases.
Defendants who take a day off work and show up to prove they weren't the driver, weren't speeding or weren't legally served may be surprised to find a salaried prosecutor arguing against them. Redflex Traffic Systems, which makes around $70 from each paid ticket, also serves as the prosecutor and key witness in the trials. What some see as a financial conflict of interest goes mostly unnoticed, as many drivers assume the prosecutor is a city employee.
Most drivers attempting to argue their case are easily outgunned by an expert who can read a Redflex script for any photo-radar citation, submitting exhibits to one of the two judges who have heard the same spiel hundreds of times.
Considering the monotony of the proceedings, it's amazing either of the judges can stay awake, let alone give each case its due. But these two men are the only human authority with the ability to ensure justice is carried out in an equitable way.
Unlike D'Agosto, many Valley residents who feel ignored by these judges spend neither the time nor the money to pursue justice in a higher court. Instead, they pay the $200 or so, swallow the points on their license and do their best to move on.
Chandler resident John Wilantowicz is one driver who wasn't willing to concede. At his first hearing, Wilantowicz showed Judge Taylor first that he wasn't the photographed driver and second stated that he had mailed proof which verified he wasn't the driver by the required date.
Judges Taylor and Pierpan both pushed his license suspension through despite these facts. Below are quotes from Wilantowicz's court proceeding.
Wilantowicz: "I did respond to it. On the 17th I responded."
Judge Pierpan: "You are in a default status…You have one option, and you probably won't like that option, that is to pay the fine."
Wilantowicz: "But I'm not guilty. I've complied. I've taken the steps to…I sent the letter, stating who the driver was…"
Judge Pierpan: "Well that's not a matter before the court…The only option is to pay the fine."
Wilantowicz: "But there's gotta be something, if I'm not guilty."
Judge Pierpan: "Guilt isn't a matter before the court. It's a matter of default."
Wilantowicz: "If I pay the default judgment, would that mean I'm guilty of speeding?"
Judge Pierpan: "Well, it would go down that way, yes, sir."
Traffic attorney Susan Kayler says Wilantowicz's case is all too common. She helped him appeal his judgment to the Maricopa County Superior Court, where justice was served for the price of a good attorney.
"This is a huge legal error because he did respond, so he legally can't be defaulted," Kayler says. "On top of it, he wasn't the driver, and the judge wouldn't even listen to him."
Wilantowicz and D'Agosto's cases are two in a string of several suggesting Scottsdale's photo enforcement judges, though intimately familiar with the law, are having difficulty ensuring civil justice for residents caught in a gambit of subcontractors, cities, process servers and the MVD.
"What can Arizona residents do?" attorney Susan Kayler asks. "Voice complaints about process servers and judges to the Arizona Supreme Court, to city council and even to the legislature. If they have enough public support, maybe they can actually pass something meaningful."
Until the laws do change or until an objective department is appointed to oversee photo citation enforcement, numerous residents will slip without justice through this patchwork of laws. Accused drivers, innocent or otherwise, will continue to find themselves in a frustrating labyrinth of private subcontractors, municipalities, the MVD, process servers and judges.
In the meantime, you may want to refrain from letting friends borrow your car, and make sure you don't plan to travel to Costa Rica.