By Brian Maass

DENVER (CBS4) – The number of people failing to appear in Denver’s night traffic court in June and July soared 215% from the same time in 2019, and default judgments against drivers also spiked by 50%, as a CBS4 Investigation found driver after driver showing up to a closed courthouse and confused by what they were supposed to do.

(credit: CBS)

Jack Reed, 33, told CBS4, “The court is basically saying you have to follow the rules but we don’t. If you don’t show up you go to jail. If we don’t show up, we’ll tell you to show up again later.”

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Reed had two moving violations in Denver in 2020, and followed the directions on the citations on when to appear for night traffic court, which normally has sessions at 4:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. But each time he appeared in person for his court dates over the last several months, court personnel had been sent home for the day either due to coronavirus pandemic restrictions, downtown rioting or other factors.

“I went to court four different times,” recounted Reed, “and each time I was turned away — they were closed.”

Then, starting June 1, the courts turned to only telephone and internet appearances — “virtual court.”

Unknown to Reed, he had been assigned a June 9 court date, which he missed and a “failure to appear” was entered on his record and an arrest warrant issued. He told CBS4 a letter from the court system letting him know about appearing “virtually” arrived after June 9.

“I don’t see how this is helping anyone,” said Reed, a father of three and the sole breadwinner in his home. “What are you supposed to do? You show up and show up and they’re not there and so when do I believe they’re going to be there?”

Another defendant — who asked not to be identified — told CBS4, “This has been a nightmare with these guys. These guys accuse me of missing my court date when I showed up for my court date on June 29 at 4:30 p.m. It was the Denver Courts who never notified me. If anyone failed to appear it was the Denver Courts.”

(credit: CBS)

Ian Hicks, a Denver-based attorney, had a similar story. He had received a speeding ticket in Denver and made his way downtown for his June 18 court appearance at 6 p.m.

“It was a huge pain,” said Hicks as he said there had been rioting downtown and the trip felt unsafe. When he got to the courthouse, a security guard told him there was no longer in-person night court, that he would now need to appear online.

“I’m informed by the security guard it was canceled and there was no prior notice of that. I got zero notification whatsoever. I found out only when I showed up and was handed a business card by the security guard at one of the entrances. If they tell people to show up, they have to be open,” said Hicks.

Kristin Wood, the Denver County court administrator, declined to be interviewed or speak to CBS4 by phone, but answered questions via email.

“We are making every effort to make notification to those who have court appearances, but aren’t always able to do so; often due to inaccurate or outdated contact information,” wrote Wood. She suggested it was up to defendants to ascertain what they were supposed to do.

“Ultimately, the defendant who has been ordered to appear has a personal responsibility to do so or contact the court in person or by phone to inquire or reschedule,” wrote Wood.

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She said the courts have taken numerous steps to let people know not to show up in person.

“Denver County Court is currently hearing all matters virtually,” wrote Wood.”We have posted this information on our website, which you can find HERE. We have also announced this information on social media; Facebook and Twitter and have posted signs throughout the city and county building; on the clerk’s office and courtroom doors. We have created an infographic for the public to assist them with appearing virtually and include those with all mailings; including traffic plea by mail offers.”

She also said her staff “placed thousands of calls to court customers advising them of continued court dates” mailed defendants that they were not to appear in person but in “Virtual Court and how to appear.”

(credit: CBS)

But half a dozen defendants contacted by CBS4 said they too showed up in person for their court appearances, only to be told by security guards there was no in-person court. They told CBS4 letters from the court notifying them of changes to their scheduled appearances arrived either the day of, or after their scheduled court appearances. CBS4 checked on the courts Twitter account touted by Wood. It has 71 followers. Jack Reed said, “I don’t know anything about their Facebook page and I’ve never seen their Twitter. I don’t subscribe to their Twitter and don’t know who does.”

“This pandemic has provided for many challenges. I am always open to feedback,” wrote Wood, “if there are opportunities for us to better serve those who are required to appear in our courts.”

An analysis of traffic court statistics shows a significant surge in default judgments and failures to appear in June and July, when courts went “virtual.”

Failures to appear from June 1, 2019 through July 17, 2019 numbered 273. For the same time period in 2020, there were 862 failures to appear, a 215% increase.

Default judgments against drivers from June 1, 2019 through July 17, 2019 totaled 663 cases compared to 993 in 2020, a 50% increase.

For 2020, there were 43% more hearings scheduled for June and July than in 2019.

Wood said the increasing numbers of default judgments and failures to appear “isn’t surprising” given heavier dockets, the pandemic, demonstrations, road and city closures and only being a month and a half into conducting virtual dockets.

“Hopefully someone at the courthouse will realize whats going on,” said Reed, “and take responsibility for what they’re doing and fix this, but I doubt that’s going to happen.”

As a result of the lack of direct communication about his court appearances, not only did he “fail to appear” and have an arrest warrant issued, he received 7 points against his license and his license was suspended. Even though he said he recently paid about $600. to settle his tickets and the warrant, he was told he would have to show up in person at the DMV to reactivate his license. He said the first available date is in September. For a realtor who relies on driving, he said he doesn’t know what he will do until then. He said at a time when people are trying to figure out “what can we all do to help each other, this is like the opposite.”

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Hicks, the attorney, said “It’s a disaster. So really the people the courts are supposed to be protecting the most are being harmed the most by this situation. This is negatively impacting a lot of people who can’t afford it.”

Brian Maass