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Ticket tussle

Money-hungry officials get a hand slap from municipal court judge


If you've learned anything from watching Judge Judy, it should be that nobody hands out a verbal spanking quite like a judge.

City Council members got a refresher on this truth at Monday's informal City Council meeting, when Robert Briggle, presiding judge of the Colorado Springs Municipal Court, shamed council members for criticizing his court based on "assumptions," and suggested that City Council wasn't respecting the sanctity of Constitutional separation of powers.

All of this sounds pretty highbrow when you consider the topic of discussion: parking tickets.

But parking tickets have been a red-hot issue of late. With a $9.3 million budget shortfall predicted for its 2007 budget season, City Council is tightening its belt. That's why Councilman Jerry Heimlicher suggested in a July 9 meeting that the city take a look at its collection of fees and forfeitures.

Those fees were lower in 2006 than in the previous few years. Police cited as two reasons the severe winter weather and the ongoing need to guard the site of the Castle West Apartment fire.

But the city also lost a considerable chunk of change by dismissing parking tickets. Springs court referees dismissed more than 8,000 parking tickets last year, or 11.7 percent of the tickets issued. Compare that to Denver, where approximately 190 parking tickets were dismissed. Or Pueblo, which dismissed about 260 tickets.

Briggle wasn't taking the criticism sitting down.

"You look at it as accounts receivable; I look at it as an allegation," Briggle told Heimlicher.

Briggle, it turned out, had the upper hand. As the judge pointed out to a slightly slumped City Council, the high rate of parking-ticket dismissals is largely due to City Ordinance 11.5.105.

The ordinance gives referees the right to dismiss tickets issued to people who were on official city or court business, or parked at broken meters. Referees can also dismiss tickets at their discretion, which is why people ticketed for parking illegally in a handicapped space can have that ticket dismissed if they prove they simply forgot to display their tag.

In Denver and Pueblo, it's a much bigger headache to get out of a ticket. Pueblo Municipal Court Judge William Alexander seemed shocked that Colorado Springs regularly dismissed parking tickets for people who are in court.

"That's pretty "out there,'" Alexander said.

In Pueblo, even city officials on official city business have to pay parking tickets.

Most of the 8,000 local dismissals were granted to people who were in court when the ticket was issued, according to Briggle (though there is no official record). That number can add up quickly. From 2005 to 2006, an average of 681 people a day passed through the doors of municipal court. The El Paso County Court and the Fourth Judicial District Court saw an average of 3,782 people a day in the same period.

"[Referees] are not dismissing tickets left and right for no reason," Briggle said.

Armed with new information, Heimlicher switched tactics. He argued that if a ticket was going to be dismissed, the city shouldn't issue the ticket in the first place, thereby saving the time of meter readers and referees, not to mention money. Heimlicher suggested the courts find a way to mark cars whose owners are in court.

Mayor Lionel Rivera and Councilman Randy Purvis agreed the idea warranted investigation.

"If you're writing tickets that should be dismissed for good reason, we shouldn't be writing them," Purvis said.

Heimlicher and Vice Mayor Larry Small suggested the courts also look for ways to track why tickets are dismissed.

As for Briggle, he said he'd look into the issues the Council had raised. But at least for a moment after Monday's meeting, he was satisfied with what he viewed as vindication.

"I think the air has been cleared," he said.

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