KANSAS CITY, Mo. - When Marcus Pitts ripped open an envelope containing a municipal court summons for a speeding ticket, he experienced that sinking feeling familiar to drivers everywhere.
The paperwork showed a violation on I-70 near Manchester Trafficway in Kansas City. The Chiefs season-ticket holder said he only comes to town for games and figured an officer caught him on radar after he left Arrowhead Stadium. But then he took a closer look at the details.
"Something seemed off to me," Pitts said.
The violation occurred on Nov. 18, the Monday after the Chiefs traveled to Denver for a weekend game against the Broncos. Pitts had been punched in at work more than 400 miles away in his hometown of Sterling, Kan. And it got more weird.
The tag on the ticket didn't match. Neither did the vehicle description. The violation listed a 2001 Toyota, but Pitts drives a 2009 Chevy Silverado (Chiefs red). Instead of forking over $141.50 to pay the speeding fine, Pitts took the day off work and made the eight-hour round trip to Kansas City.
"It just didn't add up to me," Pitts said. "I'm a country kid in a big city, but I'm not going to get pushed around."
Armed with a letter from his boss and payroll records to prove he was at work hundreds of miles away, Pitts sat in a courtroom at Kansas City's Municipal Court and waited his turn to plead his case. The judge initially asked Pitts to return in February for a continuance. But after hearing he'd traveled from out of town, the judge told him to meet with an assistant prosecutor, who dismissed the ticket. Pitts said he was happy about the outcome, but left Kansas City with plenty of questions.
"Now that I'm out of court, I still have no idea what happened, but at least I don't have to pay the fine," he said.
Pitts worried someone had stolen his identity. However, a check of his bank accounts and credit report revealed no red flags. The ticket remained a mystery.
Don't ignore strange tickets
Traffic attorney Chris Kopecky said cases of mistaken identity happen more often than people might think. However, he said the majority of instances can easily be traced to a friend or relative.
But the bizarre story involving Pitts… "It is very difficult to understand how that can happen," Kopecky said.
The important thing, Kopecky added, is that drivers don't ignore confusing tickets because inaction can lead to a warrant.
"The problem is if you don't address them head on, they can come back to haunt you very quickly," he said.
That was the reason 41 Action News bumped into Anthony Szczepaniak at Municipal Court. The Olathe retiree overheard a hallway conversation with Pitts and interjected a story about his own perplexing ticket. A summons hit Szczepaniak's mailbox in December, listing a couple of minor violations near the VA Hospital on Linwood Ave. Once again, the vehicle and the tag were unfamiliar. Szczepaniak said he first sought help from Olathe police, who also scratched their heads about the circumstances. They told him the vehicle was registered to a woman in Jackson County.
"Her name was only six letters. Mine has 13!" laughed Szczepaniak. "I'm stumped as to what is really going on with this thing. Unless someone finds me an answer, I'm going to keep pressing. How many other people are getting tickets like this?"
Strange ticket a combination of new technology, human error
41 Action News posed that question to the head traffic enforcement folks with Kansas City police.
It was not easy to track down, but Sgt. Grant Ruark eventually figured out the answer to Pitts' mysterious speeding ticket. The Sterling resident can thank a combination of human error and new technology for his unplanned road trip.
"We're human and we do make mistakes," Ruark told 41 Action News. "That poor guy had to drive all the way here and take the day off work. It's unfortunate that it happened."
As part of a massive paperless transition to the Municipal Court in 2011, Kansas City police officers started issuing tickets electronically with handheld devices.
While the new system has eliminated mountains of paperwork at the courthouse, the change hasn't come without headaches for the city. Connectivity with Sprint's cell signal has created challenges for officers. Citations can take longer to issue. As a result, ticket volume (and revenue) is down significantly.
41 Action News has also uncovered glitches tied to the new paperless system.
In May 2012, an investigation identified hundreds of parking tickets that were showing up as "unknown" in the municipal court system. And a separate investigation found the city was not collecting thousands of dollars in bond forfeiture revenue when defendants skipped out on their court dates.
In the case of Pitts' ticket, it appears the motorcycle traffic officer accidentally mistyped one number on the driver's license and didn't notice the error. Instead of sending the ticket and court summons to the correct driver, a baffled Pitts found it in his mailbox.
How often are phantom tickets surfacing?
Both police and court officials say it has not surfaced as a consistent issue to date. It is difficult to know exact numbers. Tickets show up as "dismissed" in the system, but do not include additional details like "e-ticketing error."
Anecdotally, Ruark could think of one other occasion where an officer debated an e-ticketing traffic ticket in court, but eventually realized he'd made a mistake.
41 Action News tagged along with veteran Officer Bill Witcig to see how the handheld devices work. Most of the time, a scan of a driver's license pulls up all the relevant info on the screen. If the driver is from Missouri, a photo also pops up.
But occasionally, an officer has to type in the information by hand. And Witcig acknowledged that is where officers have to be extra careful. The font is small. The keys are close together (think of all those failed text messages you've sent). And on sunny days, officers can also struggle with a glare.
"I can see how mistakes can be made," Witcig said.
Meantime, Szczepaniak's ticket remains an unknown. Kansas City police say an officer with the V.A. Hospital's department wrote the citation and it is unclear why it ended up at Szczepaniak's address.
Bottom line: remember the traffic attorney's advice about not throwing strange tickets in the trash or letting them gather dust. If it's actually you who gets pulled over the next time, it will be a lot tougher to explain away that warrant.