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Leilani Pring anguished over the $480 ticket she received for stopping on the wrong side of the road when she heard emergency vehicles approaching.

It seemed like a lot of money to the Rohnert Park woman, who recently lost her job as an administrative assistant.

So she got up early one morning last week and went to Sonoma County traffic court, hoping for a break. After waiting in a long line and sitting through a dozen other hearings, she stepped up to the defense table and made her case to traffic Commissioner Lawrence Ornell.

"I just lost my job," said Pring, 32. "Can you cut the fine in half?"

Ornell, who hears similar appeals every day, just smiled.

He'd normally recommend traffic school and a payment plan but because Pring tried to obey the law — and was recently laid off — he reduced her ticket by $140.

"If someone has taken a dramatic lifestyle change, and their life is crumbling around them ... I'll lower the fine," Ornell said afterwards. "She was in tough times."

Pring has plenty of company. Last year, about 12,000 people stood before a Sonoma County judge, representing about 1 in 6 of the 73,221 tickets issued on city streets, county roads and state highways.

Traffic court's steady pace is happening at a time of worsening finances and high unemployment. Many people are seeking relief from fines that have soared in recent years as the cash-strapped state tacks on surcharges to fund a litany of programs, driving a typical $35 stop sign ticket to $234.

Nearly $17 million was collected from tickets in Sonoma County in fiscal year 2010. About $1.2 million was distributed to 10 local police agencies.

The court's executive officer, Jose Guillen, said that's led to a false perception that police officers are handing out tickets to generate revenue.

He said the bulk of the money was sent to Sacramento to pay for things like new courthouse construction and emergency air ambulance services.

The real motivation behind tickets, which were down about 9 percent from the previous year, is public safety, Guillen said.

If people know they're going to get dinged, they'll take more care on local roadways, he said.

"The goal is to change behavior and deter traffic violations that can end up costing lives," Guillen said.

Despite the cost, people continue to get tickets. Officers issued an average of 76,000 citations a year since 2007, with a peak of 80,485 in 2010.

Speeders are the biggest violators with cellphone users close behind.

Police tend to stake out areas where the most problems are, said Commissioner Anthony Wheeldin, who ran traffic court last year.

Hotspots include River Road near Sunset Avenue where the speed limit drops suddenly; eastbound Highway 121 near Sonoma, just west of the Napa County line; the backside of Fountaingrove Parkway coming uphill from Brush Creek Road; and Lakeville Highway near Kaiser Permanente, according to police and CHP officers.

"If you were a fisherman, wouldn't you rather go fishing where you're going to catch fish?" Wheeldin said. "The police go where the violations are."

However, he said officers give more warnings than actual tickets. Rumors that officers must meet quotas are false, he said.

"That's far from the truth," Wheeldin said.

Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

CHP spokesman Jon Sloat said the agency has no ticket quotas, which are forbidden by law, but has seen an uptick in ticket challenges.

"We're going to court more often these days because more people are fighting their tickets," he said. "The fines have gone up steeply. I think the attitude is, &‘What the heck?'"

Court is in session Monday through Friday, from 8:30 a.m. through mid-morning and takes the first 70 people on a walk-in basis.

Those contesting tickets must check in at Room 109-J, where clerks do a count and decide who gets in. A recommended time to arrive is about 7:30 a.m., a half hour before the doors open at 8 a.m.

Those admitted are led to Courtroom 14 to see Ornell.

Before he calls the first case, Ornell explains a few things, drawing nervous laughter at times. Studies suggest traffic court should be light-hearted and educational, he said.

"Being forceful is not what they need," Ornell said.

He makes the same speech to everyone: If you were driving even a mile over the speed limit, you're guilty. A mechanical problem with your car is not a defense.

And he didn't set the fines. Your state lawmakers did, Ornell explains.

"You can do a payment plan, volunteer work or go to traffic school, once every 18 months," Ornell tells people seated in the audience.

You also can take your case to a non-jury trial, but Ornell doesn't advise it. Issuing officers could bring incriminating evidence that can lead to a quadrupling of the original fine.

In rare instances the officer fails to show up and the case is dismissed, he said.

But they usually don't pass up the opportunity to earn overtime pay.

"Most people who go to trial are convicted," Ornell says. "Last week, 17 out of 17 defendants were found guilty. And two of them were lawyers."

The audience is filled with the working poor, immigrants and unemployed. A Spanish-language interpreter speaks in hushed tones through a microphone to people wearing headsets.

There's a college student with a slew of speeding tickets, a winery worker who drove onto a closed freeway off-ramp and a banquet director who mistook the cruise-control lever in her new Chrysler 300 for a turn signal.

"I told the cop I just got the car today," said Margo Zatkovich of Santa Rosa. "I must have reminded him of his mother-in-law. He gave me a ticket anyway."

As Ornell talks to each defendant, the truth emerges, admissions are made. He lays out the options — payment plans, traffic school, community service.

Fidelmar Corona, a Santa Rosa cook, accepts Ornell's offer to do 30 hours of community service rather than paying a $419 fine for driving without a license and having tinted windows.

"I have five kids," Corona says outside court. "And only one job. It's a lot of money for me."

A few cases are tossed out. Ornell excuses a priest with a ticket who asked to do volunteer work. An airline pilot from Florida who got a speeding ticket in Sonoma was allowed to keep his license clean by paying $200 in court fees.

The law allows some discretion.

"It's an imperfect science," Ornell said. "I can show some empathy and compassion for people and still hold them accountable."

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at at 568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com.

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