The DeKalb County Recorders Court —- one of the busiest traffic courts in the state —- has lost track of hundreds of thousands of citations, costing the county and the state possibly tens of millions of dollars in uncollected fines, according to internal court e-mails.
The breakdown also let people ignore citations and not face punishment —- and no one has been looking for them.
The e-mails, obtained through the Georgia Open Records Act, show that a two-year communications failure in the court’s computer systems has caused citations to sit unresolved in case databases. It’s the electronic equivalent of being stuffed in a closet and forgotten.
No one knows how many unresolved citations exist, but an internal memo from a consultant estimated the value of uncollected fines at $90 million to $135 million. Both R. Joy Walker, the chief judge of the court, and Vernon Jones, DeKalb’s outgoing CEO, disputed those figures, though both said they had no idea what the number is.
Court Administrator Troy Thompson, who took over his job in March, said the situation he inherited is deeply flawed.
“I want to be able to say that for anybody who runs from justice, we have made every effort in DeKalb County to hold them accountable,” he said. “And I can’t say that today.”
When a person is issued a citation, the information is put into the court’s central computer system. When the court date arrives, clerks in the courtrooms are supposed to record the outcome of the case, including whether a person showed up for court and how the case was resolved and any fines paid. All that should be sent to the central computer. Though primarily a traffic court, the system also handles petty crimes such as shoplifting and misdemeanor drug offenses.
Each month, that computer sends key traffic information to the state so it can be added to drivers’ histories. Police look at these histories whenever they pull someone over. Insurance companies look at this information when setting customers’ rates.
But the software in the courtrooms and the software at the courts’ main data center have not been communicating with each other or with state driver history databases —- as required by state law. Also, poorly trained staff have incorrectly entered data or never updated some people’s files, say e-mails by consultants hired to address the problems. Much of the data is so old the county may never be able to collect money it’s owed, according to many of those involved.
“The systems were not implemented effectively,” Thompson said. “People were not trained effectively. … The results speak for themselves.”
Walker, who was appointed chief judge by Jones in 2002, is responsible for the court’s budget and computer systems. She said the court computer systems have had problems since they were installed in 2006. She said no one knows the amount of uncollected fines but that estimates of $90 million to $130 million were “impossible.” She said many citations listed as unresolved have in fact been paid, but the computer information is inaccurate.
“I am not trying to negate the problem,” she said. “There is a systems problem.”
Walker said the county is considering ending its contract with Southern Automated Systems, a small company in Muscle Shoals, Ala., that provided software for the main court system. Walker said she has not been happy with the software, but switching to another system would be costly and difficult.
“We don’t have backup mechanisms in place to shut this down and start new,” she said.
J. Delilah Webb, president of Southern Automated Systems, did not want to discuss her dealings with the court in detail but said: “Our stance is the software is fine. It’s a management issue.”
Walker said she had sought additional funding for warrant officers and other court needs, but county commissioners have always rejected her requests. She also said the court has increased revenue from fines for the county’s general fund since she has been in office.
Jones said of problems at the court “the buck stops with me.” He said the estimate of tens of millions of dollars in uncollected fines was “an outright lie” by consultants eager to get extended contracts with the county.
“Nobody knows how much it is,” he said. “But if we are losing $1, that’s too much … that’s unacceptable.”
After being contacted by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Jones asked Thompson to set up an upcoming meeting with officials of Southern Automated Systems. He invited the AJC to attend.
“The truth hurts,” he said. “But I think you are doing the right thing by bringing this to light.”
CEO-elect Burrell Ellis declined to comment for this story. Shelia Trappier Edwards, his deputy transition manager, said that after being contacted by the AJC, Ellis directed his team to look into the matter.
Earlier this year, DeKalb commissioners discovered what was happening and hired consultants to uncover the problems, just as DeKalb police launched a criminal probe of an alleged ticket-fixing scandal at the court that led to charges against five court employees and six others. The court administrator, Terry Phillips, was reassigned to the county’s police services department, and Thompson was brought on. Phillips could not be reached for comment.
Since then, the magnitude of the problem has taken shape.
The Recorders Court handles citations written by DeKalb police, sheriff’s deputies and smaller departments including MARTA police.
Most weekdays, hundreds of people line up in front of the Recorders Court off Memorial Drive. At 2 p.m., they file in to appear before a judge. Many pay or contest fines because they fear warrants or points on their license.
Clarence Solomon, 25, was in line Monday for the second time in so many weeks on two expired tag tickets and a speeding ticket. His fines total $550, he said. He is contesting the speeding ticket and said he has documentation proving he bought his tags. The tickets have cost him two days of work. He said he knows people who haven’t paid fines, and if they are not punished “that’s not fair.”
He said he came to court because he was afraid the judge would issue a warrant for his arrest. “I don’t know about not showing up,” he said. “That’s risky.”
In fact, it hasn’t been risky for thousands of scofflaws. Internal e-mails reveal a host of problems with court computers, including:
> In a Sept. 18 memo, consultant B.J. Van Gundy said he estimated 107,000 failure-to-appear cases and an additional 283,000 cases haven’t been processed by the court system. He estimated the uncollected revenue of the failure-to-appear cases at $50 million to $75 million. He estimated uncollected revenue for the other, unprocessed cases at $40 million to $60 million. In a Sept. 8 e-mail, consultant Ken Harris described one large database as plagued by “poor data discipline and old dates.” Van Gundy and Harris would not comment for this story.
> In the same memo, Van Gundy wrote that consultants had found sloppy recordkeeping totaling tens of thousands of tickets, including 18,447 tickets in which the fine amount was not listed; 12,500 cases that were probably paid but not entered into the system; about 1,200 cases in which the fine is recorded, but either no name or address was listed.
> In August, Thompson and the consultants wrote a “Recorders Court Progress Report” that outlined “major operational weaknesses” at the court, stressing “current court systems are not integrated.” The report stated the rate of closed cases —- one in which fines were collected —- “is significantly below other like-type courts within the Metro-Atlanta area.”
Few reported to state
In August, Gregory Dozier, commissioner of the state Department of Driver Services, sent Walker a letter about long-standing “reporting problems.”
He estimated the court should be sending the state about 3,000 traffic citations a month, but for the past two years, it has sent virtually none.
Jennifer Ammons, general counsel for the state department, said an unknown number of people should have had their licenses revoked from DeKalb, but the information was never reported so the licenses are still valid.
“We have no idea how big the problem is. All those people who skipped court, if DeKalb does not report, those are also people who have dodged a license suspension,” she said. “We are monitoring that problem very closely.”
Ammons said the department hadn’t been tracking the citations being sent in from the counties until they were made aware of DeKalb’s problems earlier this year. Now officials have started tracking citations from all of Georgia’s counties. So far, the department has found DeKalb to be the only major county with problems.
Thompson, the administrator, said the court recently sent warning letters to some people who failed to show up for court, and a good portion of people came in to pay their fines. He is trying to expand his approximately $3.7 million budget to correct all the computer problems, retrain staff and send out more officers to serve warrants on people who don’t come to court. He thinks he can bring in millions more into county coffers. The court this year brought in roughly $17 million in revenue.
“I am working zealously daily with the consultants to nail these issues down,” he said. “Can this be rectified? Of course.”
Thompson said he hoped to fix problems in the coming year so future cases wouldn’t be lost.
He wasn’t sure when or how the county will go after the backlog of the outstanding tickets.
Walker promised that ultimately, all scofflaws will be brought to justice.
“We have taken efforts in the last three months to correct the problem,” she said. “The people who have been able to circumvent the system will be caught.”
Article by Cameron McWhirter