Seattle’s incredibly shrinking jaywalking tickets

Seattle Police badgeWho ya gonna believe?

In annual editions of its Seattle Traffic Report, the Seattle Department of Transportation officially stated that a total of 4,479 jaywalking tickets, officially each classified as a pedestrian infraction, were issued in the city during the three years 2009 to 2011. The agency sourced that seemingly high number–a rising average of 1,493 each year, peaking at 1,635 in 2011–to the Seattle Police Department.

But the cops, famous in some quarters–most notably the U.S. Department of Justice–for beating up jaywalkers, officially told me they don’t collect that data at all and have no idea how many jaywalking tickets they issue. They swore only the Seattle Municipal Court compiles those statistics.

And what sayeth that honorable court? For the same three-year period, its records officially showed processing only 1,341 jaywalking tickets–a declining average of 447 per year and less than one-third the total listed in those SDOT-tables-sourced-to-the-SPD. Court records for 2012 and 2013–SDOT stopped published pedestrian infraction stats after 2011–showed even fewer jaywalking tickets, an average of 215 processed each year.

Now, even allowing that different agencies may be using different definitions for jaywalking, it’s pretty hard for me, New To Seattle, to square these numbers. Or, for that matter, to understand how in this City Of Big Data the police don’t have detailed data on exactly what offenses its own officers are detecting. This police department reform stuff in Seattle ain’t going to be easy.

Jaywalking is broadly defined as illegal pedestrian crossing of a roadway. The Seattle Municipal Code lists eight offenses that might be considered jaywalking. The Seattle Municipal Court says only 185 jaywalking tickets–a drop of nearly 90% from the average yearly numbers in those older Seattle Traffic Reports through 2011–were sent over from the SPD in 2013. At my request, the Seattle Municipal Court kindly and quickly generated this chart showing the specific basis for the citations (the seven-digit numbers starting with 11 refer to municipal code sections):

Jaywalking_2013_issuedMore than half the 185 tickets cited “prohibited xing upon arterial street.” Since almost every downtown street is classified by the city as some kind of an arterial (see this map), it’s a fair bet that’s where most jaywalkers were caught in the act.

The fine in Seattle for a jaywalking offense is $56. So 185 tickets should have produced $10,360 in badly needed revenue. But the court said it collected only $3,534, just one-third that amount. Why so little? The answer might be found in a second chart the court gave me showing disposition of those 185 tickets:

Jaywalking_disposedOnly 48–barely one-quarter–were paid in full (bringing in, by my reckoning at $56  a pop, $2,688). More than half–101–were listed as “defaulted.” I think that means the jaywalker simply blew off the ticket, neither paying nor contesting it. I wouldn’t be surprised if a significant number of these ticketed individuals were tourists from out-of-state with no plans whatsoever to return. A court official wrote me that tickets marked as defaulted eventually are sent out to a debt collection agency. On the basis of these numbers, it doesn’t appear the collector is very effective.

Of the 185 alleged offenders, 19 chose to contest or explain their ticket by requesting a hearing. It’s not exactly a Perry Mason moment. In Seattle, contested jaywalking tickets are heard in an informal conference by a magistrate, a sort of minor-league judge. Court rules say the officer who wrote the ticket doesn’t have to show up for the conference unless the defendant has the foresight to get a subpena, and that without the officer present the magistrate can consider the ticket as proof of the offense.

Since it’s pretty hard to cross-examine a piece of paper–“So you got nothing to say, eh?”–I would think most of the 19 contested cases resulted in a finding of “offense committed.” But one cannot tell that for sure from the table.

So Seattle either does or doesn’t have a big jaywalking problem. Who ya gonna believe?

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