Charles Edward approached the entrance to the DeKalb County Recorders Court on April 30 as a look of terror stretched across his face. A line of hundreds stretched from the court’s front door up the sidewalk along Camp Circle, and it ended over a hill, probably near Memorial Drive.
As Edward stopped to stare at the stalled line, Thomas Baker was leaving the court, clutching a receipt. He told a reporter he’d just paid his ticket. He said he’d arrived at the court at 5:45 a.m. It was now 1 p.m.
“Six hours!” said Edward, 47, of Berkeley Lake. “You gotta be kidding!”
Baker nodded affirmatively.
“You’re done?” Edward said. “How much did you pay?”
“Fifteen dollars,” said Baker, 53, of Buckhead.
“All that for fifteen dollars?”
Baker’s story was not an uncommon one last month when the Recorders Court created an amnesty program through the month of April to clear roughly 500,000 outstanding parking tickets – a total the court’s new chief judge, Nelly Withers, called “outrageous and unacceptable.”
The amnesty program allowed people with outstanding tickets to have them paid without added fines for missing their court date. Other reductions were also included, Withers said. Initially, lines of people who jammed the court’s lobby had until April 30 to pay the tickets, but after hundreds remained when the court doors closed that Friday, court officials gave many people blue tickets allowing them to take advantage of the amnesty program the following week.
Ticket holders without a blue ticket will have 28 days to pay their tickets before they’re reported to the state, which will suspend their driver’s licenses. Roughly 8,000 people took advantage of the amnesty program, Withers said, and many of those people had more than one outstanding ticket.
“It’s a drop in the bucket, but we’re not stopping with just amnesty,” she said.
Withers took over the court after a grand jury showed the court had not collected millions in fines and several former employees were indicted in a ticket-fixing ring.
So, previous neglect of clearing outstanding tickets led to mayhem outside the office for most of the last week in April.
Wendy Dave, 46, of Duluth emerged from the court after eight hours of waiting. She had a beach chair slung over her shoulder, which she used to wait in line.
“This is rigamarole. This is crazy,” she said.
April 30 was the second day she’d stood in line, she said. When she got the notice she had outstanding tickets, it didn’t list how many tickets or the amount she owed. So, she waited three hours in line on April 23 to find that out. When she did, she was told she had to pay in cash, which she didn’t have. So, she had to come back. The total: $465.
“Thank God it was $465. I had $480 in my checking account. It’s a good thing my cable bill’s paid,” she said. “It’s a good thing I got some Ramen noodles and some eggs and some grits. I’m not coming back to DeKalb County if they paid me.”
She said she had two tickets, one issued in 2005, the other in ‘06. As she walked to her car, she said the court had served about 50 people between 4:45 a.m. when she got there at 12:30 p.m. when she finally paid her ticket. She looked at the massive line stretching to the highway.
“None of these people are getting in,” she said. “I guarantee it.”
Alfred Robbins, 48, of McDonough went through a similar ordeal and said he didn’t think it was right to put warrants out on people who had not paid their tickets.
“Do they need to be in jail? (Is the court) making streets safer?” he said. “No. … It’s not about justice, it’s about money.”
Withers said the court gave people ample time – far more than it should have, actually – to pay their fines and then offered amnesty on some of the fines.
“Suffer a little inconvenience, but you’re getting a pretty good benefit from it,” she said.