Parking tickets and fines may fade like a summer tan in the minds of visitors who stuff them into glove boxes on their way home from vacation.
But they rarely just go away, as one man learned this month.
Robert Cochran, 53, recently got a letter from Sea Isle City Municipal Court at his home near Knoxville, Tenn.
The postmark puzzled him because he had not been to Sea Isle in more than 17 years. When he opened it this month, the tax consultant found a big surprise.
“Please be aware that a warrant has been issued for your arrest for an unanswered summons. To avoid embarrassment or your impending arrest, please report to the Police Department immediately to post a bond. You’ll be notified of your court date,” the letter read.
The summons was from an unpaid traffic ticket that was written Aug. 23, 1991, the summer he shared a home in Sea Isle City with some friends from New York.
Cochran tried to recall how he got the ticket, but the details have faded over the decades.
“I had a beach house there. It’s August, so it must have been toward the end of the season. The ticket says it was issued at 4:50 p.m. I must have borrowed a friend’s car to make a beer run,” Cochran said.
Police cited him that day for driving an unregistered motor vehicle. The fine was $66.
In the 20 years that have passed, Cochran has moved from state to state: Pennsylvania to Maryland to Texas to Tennessee, where he lives with his daughter.
His first reminder of the infraction from his youth was when Sea Isle sent him the notice this month.
Cochran called the city’s Violations Bureau, which explained that it pursues all summonses, old and new.
“This is a bit absurd,” Cochran said. “If you got a ticket as a teenager in Sea Isle City, you could be collecting Social Security and have it come back to haunt you?”
Sea Isle City Court Administrator Carol Fusco said that while vacationers might have long forgotten their youthful trespasses in the resort, the city has not.
New Jersey has a five-year statute of limitations on most felonies, apart from murder or manslaughter. In most cases, prosecutors must file charges against a suspect within a year of a misdemeanor.
“A lot of people ask that question. There’s no statute of limitations on unpaid tickets. It stays open until it’s disposed of,” Fusco said.
David Stefankiewicz, a criminal lawyer with a practice in North Wildwood, said he has handled several similar cases in his career.
“It’s not at all uncommon in shore towns. The kids come into town, get in trouble, forget about it,” he said.
Stefankiewicz said courts are usually reasonable about helping the defendant resolve the outstanding ticket.
“The court is as anxious to close these cases as anyone else. This file had to be sitting around for 20 years,” he said.
But some judges have taken a hard line on these cases, forcing defendants to make a court appearance, Stefankiewicz said.
“I don’t know how much justice is being meted out on a 20-year-old beach curfew violation,” he said. “And unless the police officer was the Amazing Kreskin, there is no way the state could prove any of these cases. I’d be skeptical a police officer could come in 20 years later and say, ‘I remember that guy. He was playing his radio too loud and the song was from Cheap Trick.’ It’s sublime, and it can become ridiculous.”
Fusco said the city’s Violations Bureau is in perpetual pursuit of hundreds of scofflaws who have not paid outstanding parking or traffic tickets, drunk-and-disorderly fines and other offenses.
Cochran said he assumed the city, like others in cash-strapped New Jersey, was resurrecting old cases to wring more money out of tourists during a budget crisis.
“If they know Sea Isle City will track them down 50 years from now for unpaid parking tickets, it makes the city look like fools,” he said. “All it’s doing is giving the state bad publicity.”
But Fusco assures him that is not the case.
“We’re just doing our job. It is court procedure to process tickets that are outstanding,” she said.
So will Cochran own up to his long-forgotten transgression and pay the $66 fine?
“Pay it? No,” he said. “It would be one thing to pay it a year later. But 20 years later? Give me a break.”
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