Original broadcast can be seen here.
by Dan Noyes
That mistake by the officer started a chain reaction, and this driver has had a very difficult time getting the police and the courts to help her fix the problem.
Gail Cottrell drove tractor-trailers for the Postal Service for 27 years. She’s looking for another driving job, but last month when she tried to get new car insurance, she received shocking news.
“I was just like, I couldn’t believe it,” Cottrell told the I-Team. “I said I had been driving a whole year and they’re telling me my license is suspended and I didn’t know what it was from.”
Then, Cottrell recalled in January 2014, she got a fix-it ticket from a San Francisco police officer because her Jeep had a headlight out. She had it repaired, had an officer sign off, and mailed in a $21 check. That was Cottrell’s mistake. She misread the amount; it should have been $25.
But the officer had written her home address on the ticket incorrectly — a five should have been an eight. So, Cottrell never received any notice from traffic court about the extra $4 she owed, or about failing to appear for her court date.
She went to the counter at the Hall of Justice and recalled, “I said, ‘Can you write down what date I failed to appear?’ And he wrote March 28. Well, I had never heard of that day before.”
That’s because the officer had made another mistake. He wrote Jan. 22 as her date to appear — the same day he gave her the ticket.
An SFPD spokesman emailed the I-Team, “This incident is unfortunate. We have notified commanding officers at the stations to pass along this information to their staff about ensuring the citations are properly filled out. Thank you for bringing this matter to our attention.”
That doesn’t help Cottrell. Her $25 fine has turned into $497 with all the penalties, but that is money she doesn’t have since she is a single mom raising two daughters. She told the I-Team, “I’m struggling really hard. I don’t have my rent yet this month. I’m expecting an eviction notice any day.”
Cottrell has turned to the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights for help. Executive Director Kimberly Thomas-Rrapp tells the I-Team, “The big issue is when there is a mistake made by the officer or even the court system, who has the obligation to fix and address the problem? In Ms. Cottrell’s case, the entire burden was really placed on her.”
In May, the Lawyers Committee released a report called “Not Just a Ferguson Problem — How Traffic Courts Drive Inequality in California“. For people of color or low income, it found “over four million people, or more than 17 percent of adult Californians, now have suspended licenses for a failure to appear or pay.” The report also said the “total uncollected court-ordered debt now exceeds $10 billion” in the state. And the report concludes, “California should end the use of license suspensions as a collection tool for citation-related debt, allowing more people to work and pay their debts.”
Thomas-Rapp adds, “The fees and the fines are just continuing to mount against Ms. Cottrell and she can’t do her job. She can’t work. So, it would be impossible for her to even pay on the fees and fines at this stage of the process, but she shouldn’t have to in the first place.”
Cottrell tells the I-Team, “And all those mistakes, it just trickles on down and it’s just a shame that it could actually keep me from making money to support my daughter.”
She has filed a petition and the traffic court emailed the I-Team saying they’ll have an answer this week. Hopefully, Cottrell can get this all behind her and find a new driving job.