Ticket to Jail: When paying your fine is not enough

What happens when you pay for a traffic ticket, but months later, there's still a warrant for your arrest?

Some drivers are finding out months after they've paid their fine that there's a warrant out for their arrest. Watch.

ATLANTA - There’s a heavy sigh of frustration, perhaps even irritation, when you look in the rearview mirror and realize those blue lights are coming for you.

But driving is a privilege, so you deal with the violation and move on. Or at least that’s what Trey Swalm thought he did. 

Swalm received a ticket for running a red light.  He wanted to fight it, but had a work event pop up on the day he was supposed to be in court.  So 12 days later, he paid not only the ticket, but a fee for failing to appear.  He walked away with a receipt and even a letter confirming the matter had been resolved. But 9 months later, those blue lights were back.

“I was processed as any criminal,” recounted Swalm.

Swalm was in Coweta County with his fiancé and 8-year-old son.  It was Father’s Day weekend and he was about to spend it sitting in jail. 

“It was troubling, obviously. You want to be a role model - a good leader for your son. And at 8 years old, one of the worst things that could happen is you go to jail.”

Figuring out how to bond out was the easy part.  Figuring out how he got there was more complicated.  Swalm says he wrote three letters to the city asking for help.

“There was no response at all. It was a complete lack of accountability,” he said.

After our story aired, Municipal Court Judge Gary Jackson wrote to say the accountability belonged to Swalm.  He insists Swalm was notified that there was a second step in the process.  Swalm needed to fill out a 912 form and submit it to DDS to clear his license suspension.

Swalm isn’t the only driver with a story to tell.  11Alive's Rebecca Lindstrom spoke with several drivers.  Each story was a bit different, but the end results were the same. 

Donald Titshaw received a citation for running a red light.  Titshaw says he paid his ticket online days later but the payment apparently never posted.  He had a confirmation number and no reason to think the payment hadn't cleared.  There were no emails, phone calls or letters to tell him otherwise.  Titshaw didn't learn of the error until he was arrested and forced to spend five days behind bars over the long Memorial Day holiday weekend. 

For Titshaw, Swalm and other drivers, the errors cost them not just money for bail, but also lost wages, professional embarrassment and stress.

You could be arrested for something you didn't even do.

Mike Mitchell with the Department of Driver Services (DDS) says when a driver is found guilty of a traffic violation, the courts forward the information to them so they can add the points to the license or even suspend the person’s right to drive. 

According to DDS records, Atlanta Municipal Court got it wrong last year about 10 percent of the time – more than any other metro court that processed more than 7,500 cases.   They are mistakes that may have impacted nearly 13,000 drivers.

Atlanta isn't alone.  DeKalb State Court had an error rate of 9.2% in 2016.  Cobb State Court had an error rate of 6.2%. 

Mitchell says the errors are often simple typos.  When the data doesn’t match, the information is sent back to the court to fix.  In 2015, it took Atlanta Municipal Court more than 3 months to fix 58 percent of those errors.

They are errors impacting lives – but neither the court nor city will talk about them.  11Alive Investigator Rebecca Lindstrom tried for weeks to get Ryan Shepard, the court administrator at the Atlanta Municipal Court, to explain why the mistakes were happening and if there was anything drivers could do to help.  His response, as well as that of the Mayor’s Office, was simply "no comment."

Swalm says the silence is frustrating. 

“This was strictly a result of an administrative issue within the city of Atlanta,” he said.

Judge Jackson disagrees.  He says the burden is soley on the driver, not the court, to make sure DDS has up to date information. 

DDS says that, more often, what happens is drivers who have missed their original court date don’t realize they need to take another step after paying their court fines.

“Not only does the customer have to go to the court and dispose of the case, whatever it may be, they also have to come to Driver Services and pay a reinstatement fee with us if their license has been suspended,” Mitchell said.

DDS has a 28-day grace period before the suspension goes into effect. During that time, it sends out a letter to the driver warning them about what is going to happen.

Swalm denies ever getting that letter.  Indeed, DDS looked back on its records and found that even though the address was correct, the postal service returned the letter.  DDS never sent another letter or tried to figure out why it came back.

WHAT TO DO | If you’ve received a traffic ticket from any court and want to make sure your license is valid, you can enter your information here

DDS says it's developing a new app that it hopes will be functional by the end of the year to alert drivers to any changes in their license status.

Because DDS will attempt to send a letter if it finds reason for your license to be suspended, it’s important to make sure that the address on your license is up to date.

If you do make a payment, save all your receipts and check to make sure the money gets drafted from your bank account or credit card.

CORRECTION:  We had originally reported Gwinnett Recorders Court had an error rate of more than 9% in 2016.  The court's actual error rate was 1.9% that year.


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