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Bad times play out in Sonoma County traffic court

  • Traffic violators wait each morning in long lines snaking down one wall and up the other side in the Sonoma County Courthouse. (JOHN BURGESS/ The Press Democrat)

Leslie Gore waited in a long line outside traffic court in Santa Rosa Tuesday in the hope of talking talk the judge into giving her a break on her unpaid speeding ticket, which with late charges had ballooned to about $600.

But after standing in the line that snaked down two sides of a corridor, the unemployed Guerneville resident got some bad news — the ticket had been sent to a collections agency.

Gore quickly realized that what started out as a minor traffic offense – going five miles over the speed limit on River Road — had grown into a huge financial problem.

“The reason we're all standing in line is because we can't afford to pay the initial fine,” Gore said, gesturing to others in the crowded hallway. “Now, since I'm poor, they are going to charge me more.” As the economy continues to sputter and joblessness remains high, more people like Gore are queueing up at the courthouse to contest tickets or seek fine reductions.

It's not unusual to see 30-40 people lined up outside Room 109-J before the doors open at 8 a.m., said Jose Guillen, the court's executive officer. Because the judge can hear about 70 cases a day, its first-come, first-served, he said.

Adding to the situation is a near doubling of fines over the past three years and an increase in citations. Guillen said agencies in Sonoma County are on track to issue 86,000 tickets this year, an increase of about 7.5 percent.

The average fine is about $232, he said.

“People are finding themselves in economic conditions where they can't afford to pay,” Guillen said. “They come here and want to plead their cases.”

And they are not just coming to the traffic division. The courts are seeing a significant rise in the number of civil filings, including debt collections and evictions, as people become unable to pay their bills.

Collections cases are up 27 percent in the first four months of 2011 compared to the same period last year, while evictions and foreclosure filings have increased about 3 percent.

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