Overdue bail refund sends Fresno businessman on quest to be paid

Carl Pederson has been waiting five months for Fresno County to refund a $229 bail he says the county has been told it should have never demanded of him. Getting his money back has become a crusade for the Fresno laundry owner.
Carl Pederson has been waiting five months for Fresno County to refund a $229 bail he says the county has been told it should have never demanded of him. Getting his money back has become a crusade for the Fresno laundry owner. jwalker@fresnobee.com

Carl Pederson’s interaction with traffic court should have ended five months ago when a Fresno County judge dismissed a ticket he got on a drive from his home in Fresno to his business in Sanger.

Instead, it started Pederson, 70, on a quest for justice.

At issue: Fresno County traffic court owes him $229 for bail he posted before a trial – a prepayment that under new rules the court could not collect today.

A business owner who has four self-service laundries, Pederson says he expected some delay in payment after Judge Jeff Bird dismissed the ticket March 19. But it shouldn’t be taking this long. If he took more than 150 days to pay a bill, his business would be taken to collections.

Pederson can afford the wait to get his money back, but many others cannot, he says. His quarrel with the court is over its inefficiency: “It’s not the money; it’s the principle.”

He has sent three letters to Fresno County Superior Court – May 4, followed by one on June 1 (SECOND REQUEST in bold print) and another on July 18 (THIRD REQUEST) – demanding his bail refund. He has had two responses, but not to his satisfaction; and he half-jokingly threatens he should take the traffic court to small claims court. Or, he says, he has given thought to deducting the bail from a county unsecured property tax bill that is due.

People who know Pederson aren’t surprised that he is taking a stand and speaking out about it. Pederson is known for making his opinions known. He is a perennial “letter to the editor” writer.

“They have no idea who they have made mad,” said Donna Fena, a longtime friend.

On its part, the court sent a June 9 response to Pederson’s first letter, checking a box on a form that stated a “court transition at the beginning of April” was delaying refunds and reimbursement should be made within three to four weeks.

A second court letter, on Aug. 7, had a different “checked box,” which said “a rush refund request was submitted to the Accounting Department. Please allow two to three weeks for processing.”

On Thursday, Abelina Cortez, a senior judicial assistant for the Fresno County Superior Court, said in an email that Pederson’s refund information landed “shortly before the onset of our go-live new Case Management System.” The conversion to the system created a delay in processing cases, she said.

Pederson’s refund was given a rush request notification the first week of August and was submitted to the accounting department. The refund was processed “this week, Aug. 26th, within the two-three week processing time.”

But Pederson says: “I’m not standing out there watching the mailbox.” As of Friday, he had not yet received a check.

In another three weeks, it will be a year since he got the traffic ticket.

It was a routine morning drive to his Sanger laundry last Sept. 19. Pederson says he stopped on Highway 180 and made a right turn onto South Academy Avenue. He noticed a police officer when he made the turn, but thought little of it – until lights flashed behind him. The officer said Pederson had pulled in front of him at the intersection.

Pederson protested (politely) that he had not cut the officer off.

The officer wrote him up. “OK, I’ll see you in court, son,” Pederson remembers saying.

He made good on his promise, appearing at the courthouse on Tuolumne Street in downtown Fresno on Dec. 16, as ordered. But the case was continued until February.

Pederson returned to contest the traffic infraction and was told he had to enter a plea and post bail before a trial date would be set. Pederson pleaded not guilty and wrote a check. The trial was scheduled for March 19.

At the time, Fresno County was collecting bail before trial. In June, the California Judicial Council told courts to stop demanding prepayment before trial.

Presiding Superior Court Judge Jonathan B. Conklin said in an email statement last month that the court complies with the rules concerning appearances in traffic infractions.

“Those rules direct a court to allow a defendant to set a case for trial without the necessity of posting bail unless such bail is required by a state statute,” Conklin wrote. “When a recipient of a traffic ticket appears at court on or before the appearance date indicated on their citation, that person can appear before a judge to be advised of the charges and their rights, as well as to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty.

“If the person chooses to enter a not guilty plea, they can also request a subsequent trial date without depositing bail. Unless the judge determines the person is at risk of not appearing at a future trial, or if the person refuses to sign a written promise to appear, a later trial is scheduled and no bail is required to be posted.”

However, depositing bail in advance is required for people who choose not to appear in court but instead opt to submit a declaration of their intent to plead not guilty and have the case set for a trial date.

Pederson wanted his day in court. On March 19, he was ready to defend himself. He had photos he had taken at the Highway 180 and South Academy Avenue intersection to bolster his argument.

But the citing officer didn’t appear. The judge dismissed the case and ordered that bail be refunded.

Pederson says he might not be raising such a stink about the bail refund, but news reports in June about the Judicial Council ruling and criticism of traffic tickets being excessive gave him pause.

His base ticket was $35. Fees and penalties increased it to the $229 that he paid.

Criticism of traffic tickets being an onerous burden on people of low incomes has been voiced by the Lawyers Committee on Civil Rights, as well as by Robert J. Thompson, a retired Fresno County traffic court judge.

In an opinion published Aug. 25 in The Bee, Thompson said in his time as judge in traffic court he saw “firsthand how excessive fines, fees and penalties can negatively impact people’s lives.”

In a telephone interview, Thompson adds that he is surprised that people have not appealed the fines based on their unreasonableness.

And asked about Pederson’s squabble with the court, Thompson says a 30- to 60-day delay in refunding bail could be expected, but a five-month wait “is unreasonable in my opinion.”

Pederson could not agree more.

Traffic court “didn’t sit on the $229 check I wrote,” he says. “They ran it through the bank.”

Barbara Anderson: 559-441-6310, @beehealthwriter