State

That's the Ticket! Paying fines in installments becoming popular in Stanislaus County

With no job, Sam Saaleephiw has his hands full with monthly car payments and filling up at the gas pump.

The 18-year-old soon will have student fees and books to pay for when he starts classes at Modesto Junior College next month.

Saaleephiw's financial equation got more complicated after he got two traffic tickets, a nearly $500 wallop to his budget.

On a recent Wednesday, Saaleephiw was much happier to peel $25 from his wallet to make a monthly payment on those tickets, made possible by a program at the Stanislaus County Superior Court that has grown in popularity since it began in 2006.

The depressed economy drove court officials to allow people with traffic infractions to stretch payments over a year. People can sign up to pay in small chunks, as little as $20 a month, for a $35 fee.

"When people come in and they can't pay, it's kind of a hopeless situation," said Rebecca Fleming, the court's assistant executive officer. "You can suspend their license, but they still can't afford it."

Since the program began, the number of traffic tickets paid in monthly installments has climbed from 6,570 to 10,867 in the 2008-09 fiscal year.

The impact of the recession is also evident in the number of tickets sent to a collections agency. Over the last three fiscal years, the number has jumped 600 percent.

"It is a tough time," said Gary Thompson, who mans a ticket payment window at the downtown courthouse. "It has really picked up versus years prior."

A suspended license is only one sanction that can occur when a ticket is sent to a collections agency. The Franchise Tax Board can put a lien on a person's bank account or garnish wages to pay the outstanding balance.

Some people owe money for multiple tickets, which can add up to thousands of dollars, Fleming said. The combined dollar amount of tickets being paid on payment accounts in the county during 2008-09 was $7.5 million.

"It's a lot of money people owe," Fleming said. "The idea is you give them an opportunity to clear it up."

Paul Doniak, 49, of Turlock grinned widely after making his last payment on a recent Wednesday afternoon at the downtown Modesto courthouse.

Doniak was slapped with a $300 fine for not wearing his seat belt.

"It was just too much," he said of his decision to opt for a payment plan.

Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at mbalassone@modbee.com or 578-2337.

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