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Police flouting 'no fix' law on tickets

By Bill Dedman, Globe Correspondent, 2/16/2004

    On city boulevards and rural lanes, whites and women are far more likely to receive written warnings instead of tickets when stopped for identical traffic offenses, according to a Boston Globe study of newly released state records.

 FOLLOW-UPS

8/8/2004
Police plan public meeting

5/9/2004
Chiefs deny racial profiling

5/6/2004
Civil rights advocates laud plan

5/5/2004
Police chiefs decry study

5/4/2004
Racial profiling is confirmed
Northeastern study [PDF]
Report summary
Who got a passing grade?
Police response [MS Word]

2/16/2004
Police flouting 'no fix' law on tickets

1/21/2004
Profiling study cites dozens of locales Charts
Northeastern study [PDF]

1/20/2004
Reilly starts push to end profiling in police stops

1/17/2004
Boston police to get tough on tickets

9/19/2003
Judge: Suspect must stay in jail

9/18/2003
Seeing bias, evidence tossed

8/5/2003
Deeper look at profiling

7/24/2003
Funding urged for study

5/24/2003
Ticketing cited despite curbs

3/5/2003
Romney backs profile tracking
People asked to join task force

1/25/2003
Chief: Glitch caused error

1/8/2003
Task force to review data


 THE SERIES

Day 1:
Race, sex, and age drive ticketing
Minority officers are stricter on minorities
Boston to track all stops by police

Graphics:
Who gets fined for speeding
Minority officers
Most-favored status
One officer's week

Town-by-town:
Ticketing whites vs. minorities
Large departments | All

Ticketing women vs. men
Large departments | All


Day 2:
Punishment varies by town and officer

Graphics:
How tickets raise insurance
Ranking the departments
Littering is worse?

Town-by-town:
Toughest on speeders
Large departments | All
Locals vs. out-of-towners
Large departments | All


Day 3:
Troopers fair, tough in traffic encounters

Graphics:
Frequent ticketers
How fast can you go?


Editorial: Tickets to fix
Op-Ed: Looking deeper
Op-Ed: Study proves nothing
Profiles in prejudice

 ONLINE EXTRAS

Q & A
Secretary of Public Safety Edward A. Flynn, the senior law enforcement official in Massachusetts, spoke with the Globe about this series. Q & A

Detailed report
A closer look at how the Globe analyzed hundreds of thousands of traffic tickets.
Download study
This .PDF document requires Adobe Acrobat

Online chat
Globe reporter Bill Dedman chatted with Boston.com readers about this series.
Read full transcript

 EARLIER REPORTS

In January, the Globe published the first results of its analysis.

Part 1:
Citations reveal disparity
Totals key to computations

Graphics:
Tracking tickets
Searches by race and age

Charts:
Searching minorities more often
Ticketing their own


Part 2:
Police not pressed on race
Tewksbury cop is tops
Fridays worst for tickets
Scope of monitoring reduced

Graphics:
Where race was not recorded

Charts:
Failing to record the race
Searching more cars

A former Boston Bruins player is cited for speeding through Hingham. A teenage girl in Randolph is caught going 51 miles per hour in a 30-mile-per-hour zone. A Marshfield teen is stopped with an open beer can in her car.

All three drivers watched a police officer write them a ticket. But all three tickets were voided, never making their way to court, or into state computers.

Since 1962, the state has had a "no fix" law, intended to discourage corruption and favoritism by making police officers account for every traffic ticket, even the voided ones. But a Boston Globe review of records of thousands of traffic violations indicates that this system is in tatters, ignored by most police departments, including Boston's, and not enforced by the state. Although traffic citations are voided or disappear from the system at a rate of about 20,000 a year, based on an analysis by the Globe, there is no evidence that tickets are being fixed for corrupt reasons -- favoritism or payoffs. But there is also little effort by state officials or police chiefs to ensure that the system is honest and accountable.

For example, the officer in Randolph did not account in the record on file for why he voided the teenage girl's missing $185 ticket. In an interview with the Globe, he said he was persuaded by a tearful phone call from her mother; he also said he did not know that she has a relative on the police force. Marshfield police say the teenager with the $535 ticket for driving with an open beer caught a break when a court officer insisted that the can had to be at least one-third full. The Hingham officer who let the hockey player go says he didn't want to detain the driver any longer to correct a typo on the $180 speeding ticket -- and did not recognize the driver as former Bruins player Nevin Markwart.

"I'm a Sox and Pats fan, not a hockey fan," said Hingham patrolman Dennis N. Love.

The no-fix law was intended to instill public confidence in the justice system by making it hard for a police officer or court clerk to fix a ticket by just throwing it away.

The law requires each police chief to return audit sheets to the Registry of Motor Vehicles, listing every citation -- which were written out, voided, destroyed, or lost. All voided citations are supposed to be returned to the Registry and explained. Failing to follow the no-fix law is official misconduct, a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $500, and imprisonment up to a year.

In practice, most of the state's police departments provide only a sketchy accounting for their tickets. Others don't provide even that much. Boston, Cambridge, and Lowell police departments are among about 200 that do not send in the audit forms. Even when police departments file their lists of tickets, voided ones are almost never returned or explained.

The Registry carefully stores the audit sheets in a warehouse in Randolph, but never looks at them. A recent visit to the warehouse found about 80 boxes of unopened or unexamined filings by police departments from the last three years.

"The mail was just sent there to be stored," said Paul F. Athy, who was director of inventory control at the Registry warehouse until he retired two years ago. "It was just kind of dumped on us."

Registrar Kimberly Hinden referred questions on the issue to the agency's general counsel, Erin Deveney, who said the audit sheets haven't been reviewed since perhaps the early 1990s.

"From a public safety perspective, the agency's focus has primarily been on maintaining the integrity of citations that have been issued," Deveney said. "In an ideal world, we would like to have a better system in place to account for all citations."

Markwart, the first-round draft choice of the Bruins in 1983, was stopped for speeding on Jan. 15 on Route 3A near the Hingham shipyard. Patrolman Love cited him for driving 58 miles per hour in a 40-mile-per-hour zone.

The ticket was voided, without explanation. Love told the Globe that he wrote down the wrong speed when filling out the form and did not want to make him wait while he wrote out a new one. Markwart, reached at his home in Hanover, declined to comment. Love's supervisor, Captain Taylor Mills, said he accepts the officer's explanation. But he said Love should have written another ticket. Mills said he would forcefully remind his officers that they must account for every citation.

A different explanation was given for the voiding of the $185 ticket issued to a Randolph teenager on May 12, 2000. Officer William McSweeney ticketed the 16-year-old girl for going 51 miles per hour in a 30-mile-per-hour zone, but then heard from her mother.

"He was just out of the academy," said Paul Porter, the acting chief in Randolph. "He's one of my best officers. There was no payoff. The mother called the officer and made a forceful case that her daughter was a teenager with a clean record and asked him to give her a break. Clearly what he should have done was to tell her to request a hearing."

In Marshfield, the $535 ticket for the driver with an open can of beer in the car was voided last July on the urging of a court officer, said Chief William P. Sullivan. Now his officers are told to weigh the alcohol inside an open container so that no motorist returning empties to the store will face being ticketed, the chief said.

None of these explanations was shared with the Registry as required by the no-fix law.

These police chiefs returned the voided tickets to the state. Most do not. A Globe tally of the most recent two months of mail at the Registry warehouse found that more than half of police departments were not complying with the law's requirement to return the audit sheets as soon as each ticket book is complete. Many of the small jurisdictions appear to follow the rules, while many of the largest, such as Boston, do not.

"We don't send those in anymore," said Mariellen Burns, spokeswoman for the Boston Police Department. "I know that's not a good answer, but it's the truth." She said she was trying to determine why the department quit complying with the law, but said it could have happened as long as a decade ago.

With so few departments fully complying with the law, some of those that do wonder why they bother. "Maybe I should have my officers spend their time doing something else," said Sullivan. "We'll keep sending them in, even if they're not opening them. I'm a believer that the system was designed for a purpose, and if everybody does their part of the process, the public would have some confidence that there's accountability."

When it was introduced in 1962, the no-fix ticket system replaced a quaint, informal method of ticketing. Officers would simply write down license plate numbers, sending the tickets later by mail. But drivers had no way of knowing immediately that they had been ticketed. Also, there was no way to determine whether a violator got the ticket fixed through connections or clout.

The new system is much more rigorous, and, on paper, provides a clear audit trail. But ticket scandals have persisted. In 1991 the focus was Wellesley, where police officers were discarding tickets for officers from other departments; the state Ethics Commission said the practice was routine across the state. In 1993 it was Northampton, where a clerk-magistrate was removed for keeping a "consideration list" of influential people immune from tickets. In 1997, Brockton had a ticket-fixing dust-up in a clerk's office. In 2000, it was the court in Newburyport.

Voided tickets are relatively rare. Of the citations documented in the warehouse files for the past month and a half, 1.3 percent of citations had been voided. Still, at that rate there would be more than 50 voids a day across the Commonwealth, or about 20,000 a year. Of those voided citations reported by departments, only about 5 percent of the actual citations were returned to the Registry and explained.

But police chiefs say abuse of the system, however poorly it is managed, is relatively rare and most voided citations would have innocent explanations -- such as the officer in Stockbridge who reported dropping his ticket book in a puddle. "The absolute majority of police chiefs want nothing to do with fixing tickets," said John M. Collins, general counsel for the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association. "There's no evidence of wholesale fixing of tickets for friends, or the daughter of a selectman. The system works very well. Are there anomalies? Yeah, of course."

Having been alerted to the situation by the Globe's inquiry, Registrar Hinden plans to write to police chiefs to remind them of their responsibilities, according to Deveney, her counsel. But Deveney warned that the Registry may not have the money to start auditing the audit sheets, or to set up its old computer system to flag missing citation numbers.

Still, at a minimum, she said, someone will soon be dispatched to the warehouse to open the rest of the mail.

Globe correspondent Evan Tiska contributed reporting for this article. Bill Dedman can be reached at Dedman@Globe.com or at 617-929-2837.

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