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Atlanta traffic court needs changes

If you come to court to fight a traffic ticket in Atlanta, you’ll have to make a second trek back on another day. If you don’t fight it, you might have to wait. And wait. And wait. If you decide not to show up in court at all, you’ll most likely get away with it.

Atlanta’s traffic court needs work. It needs upgraded computers. And it needs judges working outside the usual business hours.

These are the problems an internal auditor cites:

On any given day, the hours dozens of people spend waiting total in the hundreds. Even so, some have to come back, because they pleaded not guilty or because the court’s “over-burdened and breakdown-prone” computer system stops working; a problem that could be fixed with $500,000 to patch it or $2 million to replace it.

“The resentment felt toward Atlanta’s court by its own citizens and the contempt in which it is viewed by visitors is understandable given the standing-room-only crowds, the apparent ineptitude displayed in numerous resets and the factory-like atmosphere,” according to a report on the Atlanta Municipal Court’s workings written by the city’s citizens’ advocate, Stephanie Ramage.

The report, obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, has not been made public yet but it was given to the mayor, the City Council and the judges last week. Mayor Kasim Reed said the findings concerned him and he hoped to find some solutions to the problems Ramage noted.

“Our court system should run with a high degree of operational efficiency and it is troubling if that is not happening,” Reed said.

Ticketed drivers in Atlanta have several options for resolving their citations.

They can plead not guilty on their first court appearance on the date noted on the ticket, but then they will have to come back another day when the judge is holding trials. They can plead guilty and wait for the judge to take up their matter later — assuming the computer system doesn’t act out. Or they can opt for a diversion program that will cost them a fee of a few hundred dollars or less but spare them a mark on their driving record and higher insurance costs.

Or, they can not show up at all. For the most part, they can get away with that with no consequences.

“I see some challenges that we all need to work on,” said solicitor Carter Raines, the top prosecutor in Atlanta Municipal Court. “I also see some things that appear to be going OK.”

One challenge is those who don’t come to court. They don’t face any repercussions because bench warrants are issued but not put in any statewide system since there is no way to verify their validity later. The Atlanta Police Department has said it will not arrest someone on a warrant from Municipal Court because officers cannot confirm if the warrant is still active or if the charge has been resolved and the data is just not yet updated.

“From a public safety perspective, the system places the public at risk,” Ramage wrote in the report.

“Municipal court may well be wholly without teeth where scofflaws are concerned,” the report said.

Court is held Monday through Thursday, with one session at 8 a.m. and the second at 3 p.m. On some days, lines stretch to the back of the courtroom from the table where an assistant prosecutor checks lists for the names of those eligible to pay the fee and avoid entering a plea.

Atlanta’s is by far the biggest and the busiest traffic court in the state.

Eight Atlanta Municipal Court judges handled more than 165,000 cases last year.

In comparison, Macon’s traffic court processed almost 19,000 cases in 2012. Marietta’s court, which processes traffic cases on Wednesdays and Thursdays, handled slightly more than 14,400 last year.

Atlanta, as well as other courts in the metro area and statewide, has implemented diversion programs to relieve some of the pressure on it.

Pay a fee and in exchange the Atlanta ticket is dismissed and nothing is reported to the insurance companies.

“The benefit of this type of program to the people who have been given a citation is the opportunity to avoid the court process and (avoid) having a conviction on their record,” Raines said.

“This is good for the person because they get the charges dismissed and many of those charges carry points or require that their license get suspended,” senior assistant solicitor Sheryl Barnes said during a break in court proceedings. “It is good for the court, because it saves judicial time. We have a heavy docket, and it relieves the amount of time we all have to spend in court. And the court gets revenue.”

The report said more than 60 percent of the cases dismissed are attributed to the Pre-Trial Intervention-Traffic program, known as PTIT.

State law provides for such diversion programs but local prosecutors have a lot of latitude in how they are set up and operate. The only restrictions in the law are that the fees are capped at $1,000 and anyone who is charged with an offense that carries a minimum amount of jail time is not eligible.

Otherwise, each solicitor has discretion about what each program will be.

Atlanta’s fees are usually $300, and Raines said his office was considering raising that. In some of the smaller cities in Cobb County, in contrast, the fees are usually less than $125.

Most court officials interviewed by the AJC said their diversion programs are available only to those in traffic court for the first time and the programs have an education or community service component as well.

“They learn through it. They have to sit in a class six hours and learn about defensive driving and they have to be willing to do it,” said Randall Bentley, the solicitor in Kennesaw, Powder Springs and Acworth.

Atlanta’s diversion program, however, is open to repeat offenders as long as it’s their only offense within a 12-month period. Most Atlanta participants don’t have to take a class.

“It gives people a chance to have a first bite of the apple without a criminal penalty being charged on their records. We allow people to avail themselves of the program within a 12-month period,” Raines said.

Last year PTIT generated $4 million for Atlanta’s general fund. This year, it is estimated, PTIT will bring in $4.3 million.

“It’s a huge pressure-release valve for the court,” said Atlanta Municipal Court administrator Christopher Patterson. “If not for that program, the court’s resources would be overrun in terms of the number of cases we process. We … need the program.”

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