Originally created 12/22/96

Parking ticket penalty unclear



If you get a parking ticket in Augusta, you also get a warning that if it isn't paid in five days, your vehicle may be impounded.

But that hasn't happened to anybody yet and probably won't.

Sheriff Charles Webster might grant you amnesty. That's one of the ideas under consideration to clear up a parking ticket backlog, he said.

The sheriff's department has collected only about 20 percent of the tickets issued this year. Violators have paid $15,800 in parking fines in the urban area and $27,000 in the suburban area, said Sheriff Webster.

Another 1,500 to 2,000 unpaid tickets, ranging from $20 to $500, remain unpaid, and the sheriff hasn't decided what to do about them.

Although he said he's "not going to give up on them," pursuing collection takes manpower.

"And come the first of the year, they're going to issue new tags, and you're going to have a major problem then," he said.

One problem with the tickets is that they are not assigned to any specific court as they were before consolidation when the Municipal Court handled them, which one court official said makes the sheriff's department "the judge, jury and executioner."

"There's no court that I know of that these tickets are returnable to, so if they are not paid, I do not know that anything can be done about that," said State Court Solicitor Robert W. Hunter III.

"The cars could not be impounded unless the court orders them, and at this time I know of no court that is receiving those tickets if you do not pay."

Sheriff's officials, however,

said Friday that if someone disputes a ticket, the sheriff's department writes a citation, and the case will be heard before a State Court judge. That has happened "only a few times," they said.

Many people just throw the tickets away. And collecting the fines costs more than they're worth, the sheriff said.

Just ask former city officials who decided last year to raise $300,000 during the city's budget crisis by going after a backlog of 30,000 unpaid parking tickets.

Thousands of people who hadn't paid their tickets were sent letters by the Augusta Police Department warning that they would be arrested if the fines - which had all doubled from the original amount - were not paid.

By mid-September last year, only $27,000 in fines had been collected, and to date only about $30,000, said Jan McBride, director of operations for Municipal Court, which handled Augusta city ordinance violations.

And last year's threats of bench warrants for people who didn't pay up turned out to be just that.

The only warrants that may have been issued have been against people who went to the court and signed payment agreements but didn't live up to them, Mrs. McBride said.

Meanwhile, the only things going to Municipal Court - which cost taxpayers $210,000 to operate this year - are old cases in which people fail to appear or pay fines.

Another problem with the tickets is that Augusta commissioners couldn't seem to make up their minds this year about whether to limit parking to two hours in the medians of Broad Street.

In February, two-hour parking limits were imposed from Fifth Street to 13th Street.

In April, commissioners rescinded the twohour parking limit in the medians from Fifth through 13th streets but kept the limit on curbside parking in those blocks.

In September, they voted to reimpose the two-hour limit from Fifth through 10th streets only.

But no legal notice was published. Officers just showed up and started writing tickets this fall, which some contend is illegal.

"I know ignorance of the law is no excuse," said one recipient, "but they can't change the law and not notify you."

City Attorney Jim Wall said the tickets are legal because the entire parking ordinance wasn't changed - only certain designated areas covered by the ordinance.

And as for not processing the cases through Municipal Court, Mr. Wall said officials decided early in the year to write all tickets as state law violations, so they could go to state court.

Under consolidation, former city officers began patrolling the suburbs and county deputies were working city streets, and neither was familiar with the codes of the new jurisdiction.

"What are you going to do?" Mr. Wall said. "Expect the law enforcement officers to know where the old city limits are and know whether to write a ticket under a city ordinance or a county ordinance?"

But Commissioner Moses Todd is not totally buying that reason for not utilizing Municipal Court.

"The consolidation bill calls for a Municipal Court, and we're going to have a Municipal Court," Mr. Todd said. "If they want to pay her (Mrs. McBride) to sit down there and do nothing, that's what we'll do.

"The sheriff wants $2« million in new deputies for the sheriff's department next year. If he's going to bleed Municipal Court to death, I doubt I'm going to vote for the new deputies."