If you fight a traffic ticket in Santa Clara County, your chances could be as high as 1 in 5 that the officer will no-show and your ticket will be dismissed. It’s a loophole that several South Bay law enforcement agencies are vowing to change after an NBC Bay Area investigation.
The NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit combed through hundreds of 2013 traffic cases in Santa Clara County. The Investigative Unit’s analysis found that countywide, law enforcement agencies failed to appear at a rate of 12 percent.
It’s a scenario the Investigative Unit witnessed firsthand when we observed case after case being dismissed for lack of prosecution after the officers failed to appear.
“I was actually excited, but at the same time, I was disappointed because I wanted to point out how wrong he was,” said Jennifer Nwoye after learning the San Jose police officer who issued her ticket was absent. On a single day in court, the Investigative Unit saw 11 trials dismissed for lack of prosecution out of just 29 traffic trials heard that day.
“You get subpoenaed to court you should be there,” USF Criminal Justice Director and former San Francisco Police Chief Tony Ribera told NBC Bay Area. “This is a problem.”
While the county average for officer no-shows sits at 12 percent, the Investigative Unit found wide variation between the agencies.
Among the departments that write the most tickets, Mountain View police were more likely to show up, making it to court 95 percent of the time.
“I think that’s excellent,” said Mountain View police Lt. Michael Canfield. “I think it reflects the expectation of the department and the dedication of the officers.”
However, the Investigative Unit’s analysis showed that not every agency shared Mountain View’s dedication. The Redwood City Division of the California Highway Patrol failed to appear in court 20 percent of the time, while the San Jose Division of CHP did not make it to court trials 15 percent of the time, a rate three times higher than officers in Mountain View.
CHP Cpt. Les Bishop, who supervises the San Jose Division, acknowledged that court attendance is an area that his division has not monitored closely in recent years.
“The tracking did fall by the wayside,” he said. “There’s always room for improvement and we always need to get better.”
The Investigative Unit’s analysis showed that the San Jose Police Department failed to appear at traffic trials 18 percent of the time. SJPD Deputy Chief Phan Ngo also admitted that his department had no idea how often its officers were missing court dates prior to the Investigative Unit’s analysis.
“I think for us when we look at those numbers that were provided to us, we recognize the fact that we need to do a better job and we want to do a better job.” Deputy Chief Ngo said.
The Investigative Unit found three San Jose police officers who missed more than half (54 percent) of their traffic trials in 2013. That list included one officer missing 54 percent , another officer missing 59 percent and one officer missing 64 percent of his/her traffic trials in 2013 in Santa Clara County. SJPD records list “Vacation/Time off” as the most frequently cited reason why officers miss court, followed by “disability” leave and relocation to other departments. The NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit’s review of SJPD records also found officers missing court because of paperwork errors, officers not notified prior to the hearing, officers retiring from the force and other officers transferring out of the department.
Deputy Chief Ngo said the SJPD is looking to install a computer tracking system to make sure his officers show up to trial.
CHP Cpt. Les Bishop also promised change saying he intends to share the NBC Bay Area’s findings with the rest of his agency.
In all, NBC Bay Area found 973 traffic cases that were dismissed for “lack of prosecution” due to officers skipping court. At an average cost of $314 per ticket, it’s a problem costing the defendants time, and local governments money. The total cost for 2013 based on the estimated calculations is $305,522.
Traffic Tickets by The Numbers
(Sorted by percentage of trials dismissed)
This chart shows regional traffic courts sorted by the percentage of trials they dismiss when police don’t show up in court. Hover over each bar to see the percentage. Click the slider to change the scale and get a better look at the smaller courts.