TAMPA - It's a loophole in the law that most Florida drivers are unaware of.
The ABC Action News I-Team has uncovered tens of thousands of traffic tickets that could be invalid, if they're challenged in court. The loophole applies to infractions like speeding, illegal U-turns, and other moving violations.
Cristina Hopkins was recently ticketed for an accident she had while on the job. She says the other car came out of nowhere.
"He claims he was injured," said Hopkins. "I went to the hospital, too. My neck, my back, and my arm was really messed up for a while."
Hopkins didn't believe the crash was her fault, but a police officer disagreed. When she appeared in traffic court, she said she had no choice but to plead no contest and pay the fine. Hopkins is like millions of Florida drivers in that she never knew there could have been another option.
"Most people do not have any idea that this rule exists," said Tampa traffic court attorney Ryan M. Sawdy.
Sawdy says he's gotten many people out of tickets using the little known five-day rule, contained in Florida Statute 316.650.
The statute states that law enforcement officers have five days from the time they write a ticket to get it to the courts. The law is intended to keep the process for paying traffic tickets easy and efficient. While the law doesn't specify it, most judges interpret it to mean five business days.
Hopkins says had she known challenging her ticket on the five-day rule was an option, she would have looked into it.
"Absolutely," Hopkins said. "Absolutely. I would've gotten a lawyer and fought it tooth and nail."
Our search of Hillsborough County records shows the law wouldn't have helped Hopkins. But the I-Team has learned that nearly one in five tickets written in Hillsborough County in the last fiscal year were submitted more than five days late.
That's 39,523 tickets that could have been challenged in court, according to an audit conducted last year by the Hillsborough County Clerk's Office.
"If we can find a way to get the ticket dismissed, that's what we're going to do," Sawdy said. "That's our number one goal."
Not all judges will dismiss a ticket simply because it was submitted late. But traffic attorneys we spoke with all said they do use the law regularly.
Why is it happening?
The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, the Tampa Police Department and the Florida Highway Patrol all submitted thousands of late tickets last year, according to the audit. The sheriff's office submitted 11 percent of its tickets late from July 2010 to June 2011. That's 6,843 late tickets. Tampa police submitted 9 percent, or 10,065 of their tickets late. The highway patrol submitted 40 percent, or 13,334 of its tickets late.
There can be a lot of mitigating factors, according to law enforcement.
"I would attribute that to courier issues, mail, days off for troopers, training, weekends, holidays," said Sgt. Steve Gaskins of the highway patrol. "All those are encompassed in the five days, and sometimes there are delays, yes."
Every agency we spoke with said they are working on reducing the problem. But the agencies also argue that the system could be improved on the court's end as well.
Hillsborough County Clerk Pat Frank attributes part of the problem to a Florida Supreme Court decision requiring paper copies of tickets, rather than electronic ones.
While the county's audit was released six months ago, our investigation shows the percentage of late tickets has gone up four percent since then. Hopkins believes this loophole needs to be closed.
"I think it's wrong," Hopkins said. "I think they should do their job and do it on time."
Traffic attorneys say the only way to know if a ticket you received violated the five-day rule is to go down to the clerk's office or call and ask for a copy of the citation. You can compare the date it was received to the date the ticket was issued. They also recommend you contact a lawyer, if you decide to fight the ticket.
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