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Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2009 | Bruce Steinberg admits he had a busted headlight when a cop pulled him over as he drove through Hillcrest one night.

Steinberg received a fix-it ticket and, as he recalls, he fixed his 1965 VW Bug. He got a police officer to sign off on the headlight repair, paid the fine, and moved on with his life.

That was almost 19 years ago. Now, the county courts system wants Steinberg to cough up $322 — $72 for the fine and $250 for a penalty. The statute of limitations doesn’t apply. Steinberg has to pay, convince a judge to throw out the case or risk a big blot on his credit record.

“San Diego is apparently looking for money, and they’re being pretty creative about how they’re doing it,” said a miffed Steinberg from Seattle, where he now works as a software engineer. “This is ridiculous.”

For the perspective of the county court system, however, it’s business as usual: An old debt is no different than a new debt, and the passage of time doesn’t get anyone off the hook.

In fact, there appear to be many more Bruce Steinbergs out there with long-forgotten (or long-neglected) bills from the court.

Consider this: the court’s collection agency has spent four years trying to track down people who owe 94,322 unpaid fines and fees dating to 2000 and earlier. They’ve resolved only 10,490 of the cases, meaning some 84,000 fines that are at least 9 years old remain to be paid.

“Do you think it’s fair for a guy who gets a ticket to blow it off and hope over time he can escape having to pay it? That’s the (government’s) perspective,” said Matt Braner, a deputy public defender who teaches at California Western School of Law.

Mike Roddy, executive officer of the San Diego County Superior Court, put it this way in a statement: “We cannot reward people for ignoring their tickets.”

In Steinberg’s case, what’s at issue is whether he ignored anything. Steinberg says he didn’t, but the court says he did.

The $322 collection notice arrived over the summer from a company called AllianceOne Receivables Management Inc. It accused Steinberg of ignoring its efforts to contact him and ordered him to pay “immediately.”

Steinberg did not pay. Instead, he complained to the collection agency and contacted a Seattle TV station, which aired a story about his predicament.

Steinberg got the ticket in question at around 10:15 p.m. on Dec. 10, 1990, when he was 26 years old and visiting San Diego while working as a cruise director.

On that day, the big international news was that Lech Walesa had just been elected president of Poland. Locally, newspaper stories chronicled Pete Wilson’s upcoming term as governor, the construction of Cal State San Marcos and talk of bringing the Republican National Convention to San Diego in 1992. (It ultimately came in 1996.)

Steinberg said he paid the $72 fine. “I was young and irresponsible like everybody else, but there were some things I didn’t screw with,” he said. “I don’t deny the light went out, but I do deny that I didn’t handle my responsibility.”

The problem: He doesn’t have proof that he paid the fine. Like many people, Steinberg doesn’t store 19-year-old financial records.

“Who keeps records that long? Nobody,” said George McCalip, a Los Angeles-area man who offers assistance to those who get traffic citations at helpigotaticket.com. He’s never heard of a citation more than 6 or 7 years old coming back to haunt someone.

But the statute of limitations, which limits how long crimes can be prosecuted, doesn’t apply in Steinberg’s case since a warrant was issued against him.

If you get a traffic ticket and don’t pay the fine or appear at a court hearing, the court issues a warrant, said Braner, the deputy public defender. “As far as the time running, it stops,” he said. “It’s as if you threw a big rock at the clock. The state has an indefinite amount of time to bring the person in.”

Steinberg said he’s hardly been in hiding all these years. He bought a house and a car and has credit cards, he said, and he could have easily been tracked through his Washington state driver’s license, whose number appears on the 1990 ticket.

“It’s not like [they] couldn’t find me.” The old ticket never came up during credit checks, he said.

The San Diego County court system does have evidence that the collection agency made several efforts to track down Steinberg since 2000, said courts spokeswoman Karen Dalton in an e-mail.

In 2005, the county courts created a “Hard to Collect” file of 94,322 unpaid fines that were at least five years old and hadn’t had any “activity,” such as partial payments, for six months, Dalton said. Steinberg’s 1990 ticket fine was placed in the file.

As of last week, the county had referred 853,107 unpaid “open cases” to the collection agency, Dalton said. About 80 percent are infraction fines, such as those imposed when a person gets a traffic ticket or is cited for graffiti, she said. The rest are fines in misdemeanor criminal and traffic cases.

Steinberg isn’t entirely out of options. McCalip, the advocate for those who get traffic tickets, suggests that Steinberg file an affidavit with the court saying that he paid the fine.

It would be “his sworn statement against their statement that he didn’t,” McCalip said. “How can they prove he didn’t pay it? They can’t prove the negative.”

That’s indeed an option, deputy public defender Braner said. “He’s got some legal avenues. But if he gets the help of a lawyer, it will dwarf the money he’s being fined.”

“It’s very frustrating,” Steinberg said. “And I’m at a serious disadvantage.”

Randy Dotinga is a San Diego-based freelance writer. Contact him directly at rdotinga@aol.com and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/rdotinga. And set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor

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