Resolving Traffic Tickets Online in East Lansing, MI

Shamena Anwar
Justice Innovation Center
RAND

Overview
While courts often reduce the charges to motorists who receive traffic tickets but have otherwise clean driving records, requiring motorists to appear in person can impose a hardship to those who would need to travel long distances or who work or attend school during the day. The East Lansing (Michigan) District Court has addressed this challenge by implementing an online ticket resolution process, allowing motorists to submit a statement online; these statements are then reviewed by a judge. This has dropped the time for resolution of these cases from 30-45 days to two days, and freed up court staff for more complex cases.

The Challenge
It is a commonplace practice for courts to offer charge reductions to motorists who receive traffic tickets but have otherwise clean driving records.  However, exercising this right typically requires a motorist to physically appear in court before a judge during business hours.  This is not feasible for many individuals who work or attend school; the issue can be even worse in rural areas, where traveling long distances to a courthouse increases the amount of time a court appearance can take.

While it does not serve a rural jurisdiction, Michigan’s East Lansing 54B District Court faces many of the same difficulties rural courts have with regards to providing motorists access to the justice system.  Roughly 50% of the population the court serves are students who attend Michigan State University.  This student population is a highly transient one that typically only resides in East Lansing for nine months out of the year and switches addresses frequently.  These factors made it difficult for the court to schedule informal hearings for students who wished to contest their traffic tickets.    

How the East Lansing District Court Responded
To allow motorists to resolve traffic tickets without having to appear in court, the East Lansing District Court implemented an online platform in June 2015 that allowed all relevant parties to interact online to conveniently resolve minor traffic violations.  Motorists that receive tickets from local law enforcement can check if their traffic ticket can be reviewed online.  Drivers that qualify (i.e. have low level charges and a good driving record) are eligible for standard charge reductions, pending judge and law enforcement review of the specific ticket issued.  For example, a low level speeding charge can be reduced to impeding traffic, a charge that carries a higher fine but no points.   As a key objective for most motorists who scheduled informal hearings was to have their points lowered, the online offer provides a viable alternative to contesting the ticket in person.

To begin the online resolution process, a ticketed motorist accesses the online platform where they can determine if their case is eligible to be resolved online. The local law enforcement department--in this case, the East Lansing or the Michigan State University Police Departments--set the eligibility criteria, which is directly incorporated into the online system.  If the case is eligible, the motorist submits a statement regarding the incident, and the request is then sent through the platform to the law enforcement department that cited the motorist (ELPD or MSUPD). 

Each department has designated certain officers to respond to these online requests.  These officers decide whether to recommend a charge reduction, and can also add clarifying comments.  The online platform then sends the dispute, with the officer's recommendation and comments, to the judge for a final decision.  Judges and law enforcement officers can log onto the system at any time to make decisions on cases in their queue. Once the final decision has been made, the motorist is notified by text or email.  The average time for an online review is roughly 2 days as opposed to 30-45 days for cases handled in the traditional offline process.  If the motorist does not like the offer provided online, they can reject it and request an in-person hearing in front of the judge. 

The initiative to implement this online traffic resolution platform originated with the administrators of the East Lansing District Court, but required buy-in from both law enforcement officers and district court judges.  A major selling point to the latter parties was that, for cases resolved online, law enforcement officers did not have to travel to the courthouse during shifts which allowed them to maintain minimum staffing levels in the community.  It also allowed judges to free up docket time for more complex cases.  The specific platform adopted was Matterhorn (developed by Court Innovations); this system pulls all relevant traffic ticket information directly from the East Lansing District Court’s existing case management system (CMS) and allows the full resolution process described earlier to take place within the platform.  Because the platform cannot edit information in their CMS, the final disposition from the online process must be manually entered into the CMS by court staff. 

The impressions from the court have been overwhelmingly positive.  In particular, they feel it increases motorists’ access to the justice system by eliminating the need to appear in person and enabling them to handle disputes at a time of day convenient for them.  In 2014, which was prior to the implementation of the online module, the court scheduled 2082 informal hearings for traffic tickets.  During 2016, a total of 1376 informal hearings were scheduled, while 1278 motorists used the online resolution system.  These numbers are suggestive of both a decrease in the use of informal hearings, but also an overall increase in the number of motorists that are able to challenge their tickets.  Based on the success with the traffic ticket module, the East Lansing District Court has more recently implemented similar online modules to deal with parking tickets and failure-to-pay warrants.

Finally, while the East Lansing District Court does not serve a rural area, it is important to consider how implementing an online traffic resolution platform similar to this could benefit rural areas, where eliminating the need to appear in person is especially important.  The key requirement for adoption is relatively widespread internet access.  Although this can be a challenge in many rural areas, the online platform used here is completely functional via smartphone.  Thus, depending on the level of traffic tickets and the internet saturation, adopting an online traffic resolution platform similar to this might be a useful way to increase the access to justice in rural areas. 

For more information: Nicole Evans, Court Administrator of the 54B District Court,  nevans@54bdistrictcourt.com.