Law and Disorder: Ticket Trouble
Hank Investigates: Law and Disorder: Ticket Trouble
It’s 1995 -- Vito Costa's tooling down Route 9 when he suddenly sees blue lights in his rearview mirror. Soon after he's getting a ticket for an unregistered motor vehicle. Vito knows he's nailed --he pays the ticket.
So what's Vito doing at a hearing now eight years later, still fighting over that ticket?
It all started when Vito got this letter from the state registry of motor vehicles, saying he owed $260 for that 1995 ticket. Vito knew that was wrong.
"I am absolutely 100 percent positive I did pay."
But our investigation found that Vito is caught in the first phase of a controversial new state collection system that has also sent letters to 3,400 other drivers, demanding payment, interest and penalties on moving violations from 1995.
It may be a smart move to make sure scofflaw drivers pay what's legitimately owed. But we found the collection system hits a huge roadblock when angry drivers, like Vito, insist they have already paid or, like Larry, insist it's a ticket they never received.
"This isn’t fair, basically there must be something I can do."
But that's the problem, when Larry went to the registry to complain he was told he had no options.
"Pay the bill or pay the consequences."
They did say he could have a hearing with a registry officer, but that was even more frustrating, how could Larry prove he didn't get a ticket? And how could Vito prove he paid?
"I don't keep paperwork for eight years."
What makes the collection letter even more intimidating, it warns that if you don't pay, your bill will be turned over to the state comptroller's office and the money you owe will be deducted from your next state tax refund.
Larry, defeated, simply paid $140.
"I felt that if I didn't pay the ticket, more red tape, more bureaucracy, more problems."
Registry officials insist they're just obeying a new state law that requires them to collect aging debts. They refused a taped interview, e-mailing us, "…we feel we absolutely would not add anything by going on camera."
But more our investigation found: the registry may be quietly regrouping. Insiders tell us that they realize there's no reliable way to prove the payment status, even the IRS doesn't require paperwork kept longer than seven years.
And registry experts in Washington know that RMV records could just be wrong.
Jay Maxwell, American Assoc. of Motor Vehicle Administrators
"It’s possible, of course, that information wasn't recorded, that a fine was paid, sure."
Hank Phillippi Ryan, Investigative Reporter
"What if someone says, ‘I paid that?’ Where does that leave them?"
"It leaves us in a situation where there's a lot of room for confusion."
As a result, the collection letters force some confused drivers into a dead end decision -- either pay a bill they don't owe or fight a battle they thought was over.
"I think the system is very flawed and I think they have to get their act together."
We have learned meetings are now in the works to see if there should be some changes in this billing system, especially since it may be so hard to collect.