Bamboozled: On the trail of a ticket

Cameras at traffic lights are pretty common these days.BB branding

Newark alone has 10 of them, with another 12 sites pending approval.

Getting a traffic ticket based on what’s captured on camera is bad enough. You pay a fine. You probably fret that your auto insurance rates could head higher.

Except for those with a checkered driving past, few drivers worry about a suspended license or worse, an arrest warrant.

Big ramifications were not something that concerned Andrea Kahn when she received a traffic cam ticket last fall. She paid the ticket but she kept receiving nonpayment notices and, finally, threats about her license and other charges.

“Initially, I figured it was a mix-up, and we would get it resolved,” the North Brunswick woman said. “When each communication failed to resolve it, it felt like ‘The Twilight Zone’ or some Kafkaesque world. You realize how little control you really have.”

She and her husband Dennis Kahn are both attorneys, and they say they cut through red tape and maneuver through bureaucracy every day. But this? They hit a wall.

Andrea Kahn’s ticket alleged that she failed to observe a traffic signal at the intersection of Route 21 and Lafayette Street in Newark on Sept. 27, 2010. The ticket, received by Kahn on Oct. 12, said she could pay the $85 fine to the Newark Municipal Court by Oct. 19.

13111Kahn said she didn’t remember going through a light, but she decided to pay the ticket anyway. On Oct. 13, Dennis Kahn sent a personal check, following the instructions on the summons.


The couple didn’t give the ticket another thought until Nov. 19, when Andrea Kahn received a second notice of the violation by certified mail, once again requesting payment.

Dennis Kahn said he reviewed his bank statement and a copy of the check. It was endorsed by the Newark Municipal Court on Oct. 15, with the endorsement noting the correct ticket number.

He said he called the court that day and asked the customer service rep for the status of the ticket.

The rep said it was unpaid, and Kahn was instructed to send a certified letter to the assignment judge of the Newark Municipal Court, with a copy of the canceled check.

Kahn mailed the certified letter to the judge on Nov. 23, and he said the post office reported the letter was received and stamped by the court’s mail room.

And the Kahns moved on.

Until Dec. 15, when Andrea Kahn received another notice, this one marked “FTA” — Failure to Appear.

“It indicated that she failed to make payment for this ticket, increasing the fine by $10 and threatening contempt and driver’s license suspension if not paid by Dec. 27, 2010,” Dennis Kahn said.

Dennis Kahn called the court again, and again the rep said the ticket was marked as unpaid.

Kahn explained about the certified letter and the canceled check, so the rep told Kahn to fax copies to the court. Kahn did.

The court didn’t respond, so Kahn called again on Dec. 21. Still, court records had the ticket marked as unpaid. He was given a different number so he could fax the documentation to a specific staffer, and he did.

Kahn called two days later to check and left a voice mail requesting the staffer confirm the proof of payment was received.

No response.

Kahn called again on Jan. 6, leaving another voice mail for the staffer, and again, no response.

“I am at wit’s end,” Dennis Kahn said, and the couple asked Bamboozled for help.


We reached out to Esmeralda Diaz Cameron, spokesperson for the Newark mayor’s office. Cameron enlisted court administrator Amy DePaul, and the two reported back some good news.

The check was finally correctly entered into the system on Jan. 13, and Kahn was off the hook.

DePaul said when checks are received by the court, the staff manually enters the information into the court’s database.

“The Kahns’ check was originally applied to an incorrect ticket due to a keying error. The check was associated to a summons one number different from the summons received by Mrs. Kahn,” DePaul said.

What took so long?

Court staff had to follow a paper trail, searching line by line to find the Kahns’ check in the court’s financial journals. That is quite a job: The Newark Municipal Court is the largest in New Jersey, handling more than 500,000 cases (all cases—not just traffic fines) a year, officials said. In December 2010 alone, 8,156 photo enforcement tickets were issued in the city.

DePaul called the Kahns to apologize for the mishap.

Dennis Kahn said he talked to DePaul about what he called “the breakdown of communication at the court.”

He said DePaul couldn’t offer an answer as to why the Kahns were never told that staff was working on it, nor why the staffer for whom Dennis Kahn left messages and faxed documentation never returned the calls or acknowledged the faxes were received.

“Assuming for the moment that this started with a data entry error and not something more nefarious, there was an obvious systematic breakdown in the court’s inability to respond to the error,” he said.

Andrea Kahn said she’s relieved the payment is finally on the record, but she has greater concerns than just about herself.

“If two lawyers couldn’t solve this, imagine how hard it would be for someone else,” she said.

“Most citizens’ experience with government is through municipal court. That is why it is crucial that it be run efficiently, politely and fairly. Otherwise how can citizens expect justice under our system of laws?”

Kahn said had this not been resolved, her license could have been suspended and a warrant could have been issued for her arrest. She would have ended up in court to fight it, which she called a waste of the city’s resources.

Imagine what could have happened had Kahn been pulled over by a police officer for a new violation. She could have ended up in handcuffs.

Of course, human error happens. It’s how an organization works to fix the error that’s important.

Maybe it’s time for Newark to consider a new filing system for the courts — something that allows computerized searches of the information entered into its databases.