The worst punishment for speeding? A dreadful line to pay the fine

The worst punishment for speeding? A dreadful line to pay the fine »Play Video
A line at the Multnomah County Courthouse.

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Every single day, 1,000 people in Multnomah County go to sleep with something they didn't have when they woke up that day: a new traffic or parking ticket.

Police officers, troopers and sheriff's deputies from a dozen law enforcement agencies patrol Multnomah County's roads and parking spaces. They cite drivers for minor offenses like speeding, expired registration stickers and illegal U-turns.

Those small violations add up to a huge number of tickets every year -- 365,000.

All those people get funneled to one place: Room 106 in the Multnomah County Courthouse.

Room 106 is where you'll find a traffic jam of minor traffic offenders.

The line stretches down the hallway.

The wait is an hour.

The back-up is 100 grumbling drivers deep.

"They're definitely not designed to be efficient," said Mena Franz, who we met stuck in line on a Monday morning. "I've been here for an hour. I've already fed my meter twice."

While Mena was waiting an hour to pay fines for speeding and an expired parking meter, she had to run outside -- twice -- to avoid getting a new parking ticket while waiting to pay an old one. And that happens all the time.

"It's a very difficult process," said court administrator Doug Bray, the man in charge of running the logistics for the entire Multnomah County Courthouse. 

Why does the line move so slowly?

People have questions. They don't understand the long set of options printed on their ticket. They need the clerk's help understanding what to do.

"We have to explain everyone their options because they don't always read. While we're doing that, there's 120 people behind them in line," said Bray. 

There are only five employees behind the counter.

KATU spent months unraveling the web of long lines and big fines to understand what's broken inside and outside of Room 106. 

During our investigation, we discovered how you can beat the line and skip the wait -- and what the court is already doing to help smooth the bumpy road.

Your pass to the traffic court fast line begins by understanding how tickets are written now.

This is the exact language:

"YOUR COURT APPEARANCE, DATE TIME AND LOCATION ARE: 06/11/2004, 8:30 AM, MULTNOMAH COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT, ROOM 106"

On the back, you have four options. This is our summary:

#1. Enter a plea of no contest and pay the fine.

#2. Enter a plea of no contest, pay the fine and send a letter of explanation.

#3. Enter a plea of not guilty and request a trial by going to court or sending a written request.

#4. Contact the court and ask if you qualify for a trial by affidavit, where you will submit sworn statements in writing.

Any questions?

Don't bother calling.

Multnomah County Court only answers the phones between 8:30 and 10:30 a.m., and between 1:30 and 4:30 in the afternoon.

When they're even taking calls, the wait can be 30 minutes.

We asked Court Administrator Doug Bray what he wishes you knew about traffic tickets -- and what he wishes he could change. 

INSIDER'S SECRETS TO BEAT THE LINE

Don't show up when your ticket tells you to.

Your ticket says "Court Appearance," but if you appear, you'll make the biggest mistake of all. The date, time and location printed on traffic tickets is a deadline, not a trial date. It's not mandatory.

You don't need to appear even though it says appearance. However, you do need to pick one of the four options listed on your ticket before this date.

"I think we can get the word out to people better probably by re-writing the citation," Bray said.

Even if you must handle your ticket in person, don't show up when your ticket tells you to.

Remember, it's not a trial date. You won't be able to argue your case. It's perfectly fine to ask questions or get help in person by talking to a clerk or making a first appearance in front of a judge. But don't do this on the date printed on your ticket. That's the worst time.

The dates printed on tickets are not spread out evenly throughout the week. You'll probably end up waiting in the longest lines.

The best day to handle your ticket in person is Friday.  

You can do everything on a Friday that you can do any other day of the week, including talking to a clerk or making a first appearance in front of a judge. The only difference is you probably won't have to wait in line.

There's almost never a line because almost no tickets are printed with a Friday "court appearance" date, so almost nobody shows up.  

Multnomah County is planning to start printing Friday dates on tickets in 2015, but until then, Friday is the hidden fast line.

"You're going to find a cashier ready to help you," Bray said.

The worst day to handle your ticket in person is Monday. The second-worst is Thursday.

We asked Multnomah County to sort all the traffic tickets from March 2014 by the date printed under "court appearance." Remember, this is when most people show up, even though they don't have to. Here's what we found for a typical week:

  • 499 tickets every Monday
  • 272 tickets every Tuesday
  • 225 tickets every Wednesday
  • 405 tickets every Thursday
  • 10 tickets every Friday

No, that's not a mistake. On a typical week, only ten tickets will be printed with a Friday listed as the appearance date. You can expect horribly long lines on Mondays and Thursdays when hundreds of people think they are supposed to show up.

The court doesn't want such an uneven schedule. What's with the lopsided dates?

The police officer writing the ticket is the person who picks the date printed as "court appearance." The court gives police departments a calendar to follow so dates get spread out evenly. According to Doug Bray, police may not always follow the court's calendar.

Instead, he suspects some officers pick the same date again and again and again, which tends to be Mondays and Thursdays. 

Read the court's website for help understanding your four options.

Eventually, the information on the court's website will be improved to help you make clearer sense of the legal language, says court administrator Doug Bray.

In the meantime, here's a link to the court's information on traffic citations.

Eventually, watch for new online tools to handle tickets electronically.

Multnomah County rolled out its new court computer system on May 12. It's the biggest high-tech overhaul in the history of Multnomah County Court, said Doug Bray, who's been busy training staff on the new system.

Unfortunately, you won't notice a change right away. In the future, when the system rolls out in every Oregon court, you'll find new interactive tools.

"You'll be able to go online at some point and actually look at that ticket. Hopefully, you'll also have pointers and resources to see what the options are," said Bray.