February 26, 2009 in Washington Voices

Speedier tickets

County sheriff’s automated system ‘better than sliced bread’
By The Spokesman-Review
 
J. BART RAYNIAK photo

The Spokesman-Review Brooks holds a bar code scanner that feeds information from drivers’ licenses and registrations into his in-car computer and prints tickets from his car.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

The Spokane County Sheriff’s Office is experimenting with an automated ticket-writing system that Spokane Valley Police Chief Rick Van Leuven says is “better than sliced bread.”

“This is like giving a police officer a steak dinner every night,” Van Leuven told the Spokane Valley City Council in a recent briefing.

The chief might have been hungry that evening, but the new SECTOR system is impressive. It just needs a snappier name than Statewide Electronic Collision and Ticket Online Records Program.

Maybe something like RoboWriter.

The system uses handheld bar code readers, just like those at grocery store check stands, to draw information from bar codes on driver’s licenses and vehicle registration forms. All those names and numbers go into an officer’s in-car computer with the push of a button.

“It’s just, ‘blip,’ and it’s there,” said Deputy Mike Brooks of the sheriff’s traffic unit. “Instantaneously.”

Brooks and three other officers who have been testing the Washington State Patrol-administered system for a couple of months, have only to type in a bit more information, such as the location of the stop and the offender’s speed.

If an officer has written another ticket at the same location recently, the computer remembers that and enters it automatically with a single keystroke. There’s no need to enter the state-established bail, either. The computer does that by itself as soon as it has the motorist’s speed.

The system isn’t limited to speeding tickets. It will do splash guards as easily as speeding.

SECTOR also can handle nontraffic offenses – anything for which an officer can write a ticket, whether a civil infraction or a criminal misdemeanor. Brooks said misdemeanors and infractions require separate tickets even if they spring from the same incident, but the computer program takes care of that automatically.

When all the necessary information has been plugged into the virtual ticket on an officer’s computer screen, a keystroke sends it to a tiny thermal printer mounted on the clear plastic security panel between the front and back seats. The printer uses heat-sensitive paper and requires no ink.

While the ticket is printing, the officer types in his notes about the stop. That’s when SECTOR starts to pay off.

“We don’t save time on a stop,” Brooks said. “Where I save time is, while the ticket is printing, I’ve already got my affidavit done.”

Officers supplement speeding tickets with sketchy reports to the courts that will process the tickets. For example, an officer recently noted that a motorist slipped his seatbelt on after being stopped.

Brooks said a typical stop still takes seven or eight minutes, but SECTOR can shave an hour off the time it takes a traffic officer to process 15 to 20 tickets at the end of a busy shift. No more writing affidavits. No more detaching numerous copies of each ticket from a book, sorting them and getting them in the appropriate supervisors’ in-boxes.

Officers don’t even have to go back to the station to file their tickets. They can transmit the citations directly to courts from their cars, using secure law enforcement wireless Internet hot spots.

Like a ticket book, though, SECTOR assigns a series of ticket numbers to an officer to ensure accountability. Each officer has a password to enter the system.

So far, the sheriff’s office is using SECTOR only in unincorporated portions of the county, but plans call for it to expand soon into Spokane Valley, where city officials contract with the sheriff for police service. The Liberty Lake Police Department already uses the system.

Van Leuven said there will be no cost to Spokane Valley. The sheriff’s office got a grant for 21 of the scanners, which cost about $200 apiece, and it already had purchased more than 80 of the thermal printers. The SECTOR software, provided by the state, is compatible with the computers already installed in every officer’s car.

Eventually, Van Leuven would like to have a scanner for each of his 23 field officers, including corporals and sergeants.

The system works with documents from many states, although not all are compatible, Brooks said. Oregon, California, Nevada, Texas and newer Idaho licenses and registrations are compatible.

“I think I had a New Mexico that worked,” Brooks added.

Curiously, though, the bar codes on Washington registrations don’t pull up all necessary information that shows up on the paper documents. Brooks said the scanner always finds the vehicle make, state and license number, but he typically has to type in the model, style, color and registration expiration date.

“I don’t understand it, and it’s a big pain,” Brooks said.

He hopes the glitch eventually will be fixed, and noted there is a committee to deal with problems like that.

Nevertheless, Brooks said, “Most of the deputies I know like it. It’s just nice not having to write everything.”

John Witter, clerk of the Spokane County District Court, also is an enthusiast.

Witter said the system required some adjustment when the District Court began beta testing it for the Washington State Patrol more than two years ago, but the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.

The WSP doesn’t use SECTOR exclusively, but Witter estimated that 20 percent of the tickets processed in District Court now are electronic.

One of the big advantages is speed. The electronic tickets can be entered into the court computer system in about 30 seconds, compared with more than a minute for a paper ticket, Witter said.

“When you’re dealing with nearly 60,000 traffic-ticket infractions a year, that’s a tremendous benefit to the court,” he said.

Often, he said, if a motorist comes to a District Court clerk’s window within a few hours of getting an electronic ticket, there’s a good chance the deputy clerk already has the ticket because the officer didn’t wait until the end of the day to file it.

Witter and Brooks think another big advantage is legibility, although at least some deputy clerks and ticket recipients have misgivings.

“There are no misprints, and we don’t have to worry about any illegible writing,” Witter said.

An officer’s writing could be pretty hard to read on a motorist’s copy of a hand-written traffic ticket, Brooks acknowledged. It was the fifth of five carbon copies.

“The boilerplate was good because it was printed, but you couldn’t read the officer’s name,” Brooks said.

But SECTOR turns the problem on its head because thermal printers make relatively poor printouts. The type tends to fade quickly and to scuff with handling. Because of the format of the electronic tickets, information entered by scanner or keyboard appears in easy-to-read boldface type while the boilerplate information – such as how to pay or challenge a ticket – can be difficult to read.

“To me, it’s kind of a give and take,” Brooks said.

Anyway, Witter said, “Most of the copies we see here at the window are pretty clear.”

Legibility isn’t a problem in court, where the electronic information can be displayed on a computer screen or printed with a high-quality printer.

“I’d say we’d give it two thumbs up,” Witter said.

Contact reporter John Craig at 927-2165 or by e-mail at johnc@spokesman.com


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