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.
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