For Jason Sheals, owner of Fleet Appeal Power Washing, the letter from the Arizona Department of Transportation that he received in late February represented an existential threat to his business.
That letter informed him that registration renewal for his work truck and trailer were blocked and would remain so until he dealt with two old traffic tickets — one for no proof of vehicle registration and the other for failing to stop at a red light — that dated back to 2004.
Sheals said he remembered those tickets, but felt certain he had gotten both of them taken care of one way or another by 2006, though he concedes he has no records to back up that claim. So, on March 8, he paid nearly $800 to put the matter behind him and move on.
“There wasn’t anything I could do except roll over,” he said.
Sheals was one of thousands of county residents to get such letters since last summer. In July, all Pima County justice courts started turning over nearly 180,000 delinquent cases to the state’s Fines/Fees and Restitution Enforcement — FARE — program, leaving just a fraction with their previous private contractor, Valley Collections.
Forty-two percent of those cases were for civil traffic matters and, coupled with criminal traffic cases, traffic cases represent a “majority” of delinquent cases, according to interim Pima County Consolidated Justice Court Administrator Micci Tilton. The oldest delinquent case is from 1983.
While an exact figure could not be made available, Tilton said that total delinquent fines certainly are in the tens of millions of dollars.
Over the last seven or so months, ADOT’s Motor Vehicle Division has issued 31,752 holds to county drivers and, as with Sheals, the prospect of not being able to renew registration — a disincentive unavailable to Valley and other private debt collectors — has gotten people’s attention. Over 12,000 people have contacted justice courts since last summer trying to resolve their cases, most of whom get on a payment plan or settle up completely like Sheals.
The flood of calls has swamped Pima’s justice courts, leading Tilton to bring on three additional full-time employees. However, Tilton expects the recent flurry of collection activity to slow down and level off in the not-so-distant future.
Holds can only be issued after FARE’s private contractor, LDC Collection Systems, has sent at least two notices.
Early data on collection revenues suggests that the FARE system is bringing in more fine revenue. Excluding additional FARE fees, February saw around $470,000 in net collection revenues, $84,000 more than the same period the year before when all delinquent collection efforts were handled by Valley. That company had Sheals’ delinquent fines for about 3½ years before they were turned over to FARE, which got hold of him in about six months.
Tilton emphasized that FARE has not been in place long enough, nor is there is enough data, to say whether it is working better than previously used collection agencies.
“Any time you … reshuffle the deck, and you resend all of these delinquent cases to a brand-new collection agency, they’re always going to have that success right up front,” she said.
However, the Tucson City Court administrator previously told the Road Runner that he has consistently had better luck with FARE, which the court switched to in 2003, than with private contractors.
But beyond the effectiveness of FARE, Sheals thinks there is something fundamentally unfair about dredging up decades-old cases and pursuing them aggressively.
He said he understands the court’s attempt to recoup millions in unpaid fines, but believes that when old cases stretch beyond five years, it puts those on the receiving end of ADOT letters and registration holds at a disadvantage, as records get lost and addresses change.
“Fourteen years ago? Come on,” he said, referring to his case, adding later: “I don’t even have the same bank from back then.”
Tilton says she appreciates the frustration and stress experienced by those who received letters like Sheals, whom she personally spoke to about his case, but told the Road Runner that she has “high confidence” that the old cases turned over to FARE are accurate.
“These cases are real. They happened and they were never resolved,” she said.
Tilton’s court has previously contemplated an amnesty for old delinquent cases, but has yet to forgive any because “it’s complicated” to come up with a fair way to do so.
“If I have a traffic case that is 10 years old and I’m paying my $25 a month, and you have your traffic case that is 10 years old and you’re not paying it, is that fair to wipe your debt away?” she added.
Tilton did say that anyone who disputes their old fines has the right to file a motion to fight them in court, and she encourages them to do so.
Judge Adam Watters, the presiding justice of the peace, said his colleagues “are considering” the length of time that has lapsed between the original infraction and notification from FARE or ADOT.
“If it’s been 15 years, and you get hit with this lightning bolt out of the blue that now says you owe $700, I recognize people saying, ‘Wait a minute, where has this been? I thought I took care of this a long time ago,’” he said, but added later: “We can’t just give up on folks because for 10 years they’ve dodged us.”
DOWN THE ROAD
There will be daily delays on Arizona 86 near Sells starting Monday to accommodate a two-mile chip-seal project between mileposts 113 and 115. Crews will work from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily through Friday. Lane closures will be in effect, and a pilot car will be on site to guide drivers through the work area.
Also, while work started March 20, there will be a kickoff event for the 13-month Phase 2 of the Grant Road Improvement Project on Friday. It starts at 10 a.m. on the south side of the road between North First and Park avenues.