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Dearest Matt:

I received a "red light" citation many months ago in the mail and never took care of it. A friend of mine also received a citation (hers was on a traffic stop) over a year ago, and she failed to resolve it. We both want to be good citizens and make things right, but where do we start? We are both kind of scared we might be tossed in the slammer or something and sure can't afford an attorney.

-- Jail House Chicks, the net

I have either good news and bad news, or bad news and bad news. Potential good news: There is a chance that the one with the photo-enforcement ticket may be off the hook. The court dismissed some photo-enforcement citations issued in the city of San Diego. (Have the two of you stopped listening to the news?) Call the Traffic Violation Bureau (800-369-5352), give them your citation number, and they'll tell you if yours is among those dismissed. If so, you're home free, so you'll be available to bake a cake with a file in it for your friend. If not, read on.

Call traffic court (858-565-1006) and give them your citation number. You can wear those fake-nose glasses and disguise your voice if that makes you feel better. A very nice lady who does nothing but talk to bad drivers all day will tell you exactly how deeply you've fallen into the DMV doo-doo and what you can do to get out. To prepare you for what might lie ahead, here's a diagram of how a citation becomes a warrant.

A copy of your citation goes to traffic court. Traffic court forwards the information to the DMV, which calculates your fine. It can vary depending on your driving record. They assign you a court date. The court sends you a letter with these particulars. (Have you also stopped reading your mail?) If you don't pay the fine or appear on your court date, they add a $250 civil penalty to the fine, and you get a letter from the DMV saying there is a temporary hold on your drivers license. And you get a new court date. Blow off that date, and the DMV automatically suspends your license.

If you're caught driving on a suspended, a misdemeanor, and ignore that citation too, the court issues a bench warrant for your arrest. So you see, you have to severely provoke the system before they'll snap the cuffs on you. But sooner or later they will get your attention and they will get their money. So suck it up, call traffic court, and get it over with. And in the meantime, I'd start riding the bus.

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