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e-Citations: How to Get Started!

Processing traffic citations or summons is a costly, labor-intensive task that is prone to error. Electronic citation, or e-Citation, systems reduce costs and improve efficiency in most phases of the process.

Data is primarily acquired, first, from the officer copying the driver’s license, registration, location, violation and court appearance data from documents at the scene, and second, from memory, both of which can be faulty. Few officers have perfect penmanship, and rain, cold and pen pressure (“Please press firmly; you are making four copies”) take their toll on legibility. The officer may enter a location that doesn’t exist or mismatch the code section of the violation with its title. He could enter the wrong court appearance date. Any one of these problems can invalidate the citation, thereby wasting everyone’s time.

When the officer drops off his completed citations for processing, each is processed by a clerk, who re-enters all of the information into a computer-based system. This is another opportunity for errors to creep in, as the clerk may not be able to read the officer’s handwriting or may simply make a typographical error. Many departments add extra coding at this stage for tracking of violation types and locations, and this process is also error-prone.

The citations are next passed on to the court and/or a prosecutor’s office, each of which may have its own tracking system requiring re-entry of the citation data, and each offering the chance to make more mistakes.

When the citation makes it to the courtroom, a number of issues could arise: violators may claim they are victims of an impostor using their name or a forged license, the judge may not be able to read the citation, or the violator may exploit one of the errors made along the way to argue that the charge is invalid and should be dismissed. In some agencies, a phone call from an influential person can result in a citation being “taken care of” before it reaches the court. This effectively makes some people immune to the law and fosters distrust in the police and the justice system. The e-Citation systems minimize or eliminate every one of these problems.

Essential Elements

Every e-Citation system includes a number of components: a device to import information directly from driver’s licenses and registration documents, usually a bar code scanner or magstripe reader; a computer to display the data from the scanner/reader and to input location, violation type and other details; a printer to make a copy for the violator and sometimes the court or prosecutor’s office; a transfer method to get the citation information from the officer’s vehicle to the police station; back office software for maintaining the database of citations and analysis of the information contained in it.

The actual configuration of all these components varies considerably. Some systems integrate the scanner/reader into the computer, and some use a peripheral device connected wirelessly or via a USB port. The computers can be hand-held in several form factors, or conventional notebooks like those installed in most patrol cars. Some systems transfer the citation data instantly via a wireless data network like Sprint or Verizon; some do batch loads when the patrol vehicle is in range of a Wi-Fi access point; and some require “sneakernet” transfer by physically carrying a USB key drive, SD card or portable hard drive between the car and the station.

The “back office” component carries the greatest potential for cost savings. Most of the officers interviewed said that issuing an e-Citation took them about the same time as with the paper version. The greatest cost savings comes from clerks at the police station and in the courts not having to re-key information into their own systems. If the e-Citation software is fully integrated with the systems in use at the police station, in the courts and at the state level, the only human interaction required after the officer issues the ticket takes place when the violator comes in to pay a fine or contest the charge.

Washington’s SECTOR

In 2003, the Washington State Traffic Records Committee established the Electronic Information Processing Initiative (eTRIP) with the intent of providing a consistent, integrated system for reporting and disseminating traffic-related information to and from all agencies with an interest in the data. At the time the initiative was created, traffic ticket and collision report information was being re-keyed from paper citations into systems of at least three separate state-level agencies.

The Statewide Electronic Collision and Tickets Online Records (SECTOR) system was the result of that initiative. SECTOR provides software and infrastructure to any enforcement agency in the state of Washington. Traffic citations and collision reports created in the SECTOR software are immediately transmitted to the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) collision data system, the Washington Department of Licensing (DOL) and the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC).

When an officer in the field makes a traffic stop, he obtains the violator’s driver’s license, vehicle registration certificate and proof of insurance card. The officer returns to his car with these documents and uses a hand-held scanner to capture the data contained in a 2-D, PDF417-format barcode that is on every Washington driver’s license and registration certificate, as well as on those in other states. The barcode contains all of the information on the document itself. The SECTOR system doesn’t “phone home” to the state database to determine the status of the license and registration, or whether the person or vehicle is wanted. The officer can do that over the radio or through his patrol car computer if he wants.

The information from the barcodes fills in (“populates”) the form fields in an on-screen citation form displayed on the officer’s patrol car computer. The officer keys in the location and violation information for up to four offenses. If the offenses are of different types (traffic violation, criminal traffic offense, non-traffic criminal offense, etc.), the information will be routed to the appropriate destinations and/or printed out on different forms, as required.

Once the citation is filled out, the officer sends a copy to the printer in his car, which produces the violator’s copy on 8.5-inch by 11-inch thermal paper. The printing process takes between 30 and 90 seconds. Some officers use this time to enter their notes for review in court, should it be necessary.

Washington doesn’t require violators to sign citations, so the traffic stop is over when the officer gives the violator his copy from the printer.

If he entered his notes, he’s done. There are no forms to turn in, no log entries to make and no data to be keyed in at the station. The violation information appears in the court’s records almost immediately, so if the violator wants to drive to the court and pay the fine, he can do so as soon as the officer sends him on his way.

Collision reports work a little differently in that the circumstances of the accident are entered into an on-screen collision report form, and the report is sent to the officer’s supervisor for approval before it’s transmitted to the state databases. If an officer is called to the scene of a collision where the damage level doesn’t require a report, but the drivers want one for insurance purposes, the officer can do a “quick capture” of the driver’s license and registration information, enter the insurance data and location, and print out copies for the drivers on the spot. The report doesn’t require further processing, and the drivers don’t need to go to the station to get a copy.

Motorcycle officers use a Panasonic CF-U1 compact computer, which has a miniaturized keyboard and a built-in scanner. The CF-U1 was chosen because it will run the full version of Windows. Most other hand-held computers run Windows Mobile (if they run Windows at all), which is incompatible with SECTOR. The motors use the same PocketJet 3 thermal printers that are mounted in the patrol cars. The PocketJet line was a Pentax product until relatively recently, when the company was acquired by Brother.

SECTOR was tested and rolled out by the Washington State Patrol. Once the kinks were worked out, it became available to local Washington agencies. The software was free, but each agency had to provide its own computers, scanners and printers. The Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs obtained a grant sufficient to provide any agency in the state with enough hardware to equip five vehicles. Many Washington agencies—especially the ones least able to buy new equipment—don’t have more vehicles than that.

“I can write out a paper ticket in less time than it takes me with SECTOR,” said Sergeant Ken Lattin of the Kennewick, Wash., Police, “but the finished product looks more professional than one in my handwriting would. The biggest cost savings is in the time our records division doesn’t have to spend entering data from the citation. We can repurpose those employees and do more with less.”

Buy-in Involves Many

Buy-in at every level is critical to making an e-Citation program successful. The number of stakeholders affected by changes in a traffic citation system is not always evident. Officers in the field are obviously stakeholders, but so are the records employees who have to enter and manage the information from the tickets. Just moving a few boxes around on a form can impede their workflow and efficiency.
The court clerk’s office may be getting data from the police records division, or the clerks may be re-keying the data themselves because they use a system that is incompatible with the police department’s system. Judges who are used to paper citation forms may balk at the notion of reading citation data from a computer monitor and either entering the disposition information themselves or having a clerk do it for them.

Each state maintains some database of traffic violations and/or collisions, but there is little consistency from state to state. Police agencies might be required to enter data into the state’s system or supply it in a form that the state requires. The same is true of the state motor vehicles and driver’s licensing agency.

Yet another stakeholder is the community of insurers and law offices. Many insurers make a daily round of the city, county and state law enforcement agencies in their service area to pick up collision reports involving their clients. Law offices do this less frequently, when a client is involved in litigation over a traffic incident. Producing the report copies puts a burden on the law enforcement agencies and can be costly, both in fees and employee time and travel, for the insurance companies and law offices.

Bringing everyone into the planning stage of an e-Citations system makes it more likely that the needs of all stakeholders are served and also broadens the base of support when the inevitable obstacles present themselves.

Most e-Citations systems include collision reporting. The accuracy, timeliness and versatility of the information coming from these systems is far more valuable than manually assembled data that is weeks old before it’s available. Police managers and traffic engineers can view maps of collision reports in near-real time.

The traffic supervisor can assign officers to concentrate enforcement on the problem violations at the problem locations, and the traffic engineer can re-examine signal timing, posted speed limits and signage in those areas to reduce the potential for accidents. There’s an additional feedback loop for the traffic supervisor, who sees whether his officers are targeting the violations and locations he assigned. Insurers will support just about any initiative that reduces the number of accidents.

Funding is always an obstacle. Traffic and interoperability grants are available to pay some or all of the costs associated with implementing e-Citations. Many states are following the pattern that Washington set by creating a statewide system that everyone else can tap into. The private sector of insurers and law offices may be willing to pay a convenience fee to have online access to the reports they now pick up at the station. And, of course, savings will be realized from the time records and court personnel won’t be spending on data entry.

Write More Tickets?

Whether police write more tickets with an e-Citations system is unclear. In a jurisdiction where officers have to complete a separate citation for each charge, it’s likely there will be an increase. Nearly every e-Citations system allows the officer to place multiple violations on one form, or at least copy the data from one citation onto the next, cutting down on the time necessary to complete an additional citation.

Most jurisdictions provide space for three or more violations on one paper form, and there isn’t a lot of time savings associated with e-Citations over paper tickets. Some economy of time and effort is realized when an officer is working radar or other enforcement at the same static location. The officer can enter the location and violation type into the citation form once and copy it for each citation issued. Jurisdictions concerned with traffic fines as a source of revenue would see the largest return on investment here.

Of the agencies and officers around the country who were interviewed for this article, about half said more citations were issued with e-Citations systems, and half said the output remained about the same. Without exception, everyone said that officers who became acclimated to e-Citations wouldn’t go back to the paper method. Everyone has to do this now and then, because of system outages or equipment failures, and when they do, they get downright grumpy about it. Officers who were at first reluctant to move from paper to e-Citations took about two weeks to become acclimated.

Every time information is re-entered into a database, there is a new opportunity for error. Names are misspelled, dates of birth and license numbers are transposed, and one record doesn’t match with another. Chronic violators take advantage of these errors when they drive without insurance or have suspended or revoked licenses. If the violation data doesn’t match exactly with their driver’s license record, the violation isn’t posted to their driving record, and they escape at least a portion of the penalty for abusing their driving privileges. Ensuring that drivers are held accountable for their actions makes the roads safer and the justice system more equitable.

Surprisingly, most e-Citations systems don’t query vehicle registration, driver’s license or wanted vehicles/persons databases when a license or registration is scanned. The 2-D barcodes contain all of the information shown on the registration or license and simply copy that into the citation form fields. North Carolina is an exception.
Sergeant Kevin Hornaday of the Franklinton, N.C., Police said, “The greatest advantage with e-Citation is the efficiency and turn-around we get. With access to check license numbers and registrations through DMV and pulling that information into the citation, it saves an extra step.” Other users said that their systems may eventually be upgraded to integrate queries of DMV and wanted databases, but no one could say when that might happen.

Stumbling Blocks

A few common problems exist with newly implemented e-Citations systems. A general complaint centered on incompatibilities with software and hardware. Vendors offered hand-held computers that ran Windows Mobile when the software required the full version of Windows. Another system worked fine running under Windows XP, but when computers running Windows Vista arrived, the software crashed.

Wireless communications between components is an issue for some users and systems. Some systems, especially those using hand-held computers, depend on a Bluetooth or Wi-Fi connection to send data to the printer. Bluetooth is a very low-power wireless protocol used mostly with cellular phones and wireless headsets, where the distance between devices is only a couple of feet. There is a beefier version used for longer distances, but users seem to get out of the coverage zone easily. Printing also takes longer when the computer is using Bluetooth as opposed to a hardwired link.

Hardware durability is critical. Hand-held computers designed for business use are not rugged enough for police use, at least not without some hardened enclosure that may make screens more difficult to read and keys tougher to hit accurately. If your potential vendor brings you a sample he won’t let you drop on the pavement a few times, look elsewhere.

“In a perfect world, we’d have gone with a much more durable unit and asked for more input from users across the spectrum (field and courts) before letting the bid and signing the contracts,” said Senior Sergeant Don Peritz with the Dallas County, Texas, Sheriff’s Department. “Technology has just now started to race forward in this specialized field, and there are so many more choices available now. We really did the right thing on the third bid—solicited input from everyone who had anything to do with anything ‘citation’ and used that information to make what I believe are excellent decisions this time.”

Insist on real-world, plugs-out testing. Do not sign off on any configuration until you have seen it work on your streets, with your people, using your infrastructure. Every environment is different. A network provider that has excellent coverage in Theirtown, USA, may prove wanting in Yourtown, USA.

Make the computer do as much of the work as possible. One of the most common errors cops make is to mismatch the numerical code section with the narrative title of the violation. For instance, “Reckless driving” is addressed by Section 23103 of the California Vehicle Code (CVC). If the officer enters “23102” in the space reserved for the section number, there’s no match in the CVC (23102 CVC is an obsolete code for DUI). Some courts will dismiss citations based on such an error.

Incorporating a pick-list into the form is an easy programming task. Even though the list of possible offenses and codes might be long, they’re only text and don’t take up all that much memory. If the user can enter the first few numbers or characters into the section number or title field and have the list move to the corresponding entries, it’s more likely he will cite the correct section, and it will always match the appropriate name or section number. Similar features are useful for different courts and appearance dates.

If your jurisdiction requires the violator to sign the citation, then you are forced to either print a paper copy for him to sign and file it with the court, or choose a computer that will capture his stylus-written signature on the display. States are increasingly moving to no-signature-required citation forms which eliminate this problem, so it’s worth it to contact your state legislators and see if it’s possible to make this modification to the law.

Without a signature, some judges will be more likely to buy the defense that “someone else” committed the traffic violation. Most of the hand-held computers used for e-Citations come with cameras (still and video), sound recorders and even fingerprint scanners. Sound and images recorded at the time of the violation can be attached to the citation file and sent to the court as a package. Confronted with a photo, fingerprint and recording of their voice, most pretenders will come clean.

Most of your violators will be from the same state you live in, so the e-Citations software will read the barcodes or magstripes from their paperwork. Don’t count on that being the case when the driver is from another state. Sadly, there is still very little consistency between driver’s license and vehicle registration data formats from state to state. When you encounter an out-of-state driver, you’re probably going to have to enter his information manually.

Finally, don’t allow your agency to implement single-source management of your e-Citations system with one employee. A large law enforcement agency in Southern California was an early adopter of e-Citations, largely because their traffic lieutenant was technologically-oriented and made a good case for the system to his superiors. Their e-Citations system became a model for other agencies. When the lieutenant was promoted and went to another assignment, his replacement didn’t share his enthusiasm for the project, and it was allowed to die. The agency lost the advantage it had with greater efficiency, and the investment of hundreds of thousands of dollars in hardware and infrastructure was lost.

Tim Dees is a retired police officer who writes and consults on technology applications in criminal justice. He can be reached at

Published in Law and Order, Oct 2010

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