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Red light runners can e-mail judge

A Washington county court system is experimenting with a new plan that lets traffic scofflaws communicate with a judge via e-mail instead of in person.

    A Washington county court system is experimenting with a new plan that lets traffic scofflaws communicate with a judge via e-mail instead of in person.

    To participate in the new Yakima County program, people who receive traffic tickets must admit they violated the law. But they can explain their situation via e-mail and ask for a reduced fine or permission to participate in traffic school without having to wait for a couple of hours to make their case in court. The judge considers their e-mail request and then mails them the decision on a postcard.

    The system, made public last week and suggested by a judge who hears such cases, is only for transgressions such as running a red light or speeding. Those convicted of offenses such as drunk driving must still show up in court.

    "The intent is so people don't have to drive all the way to court," said Harold Delia, administrator of the courts for Yakima County. "That can take a good part of someone's day."

    Under pressure to save cash, many counties across the country are eyeing technology as a way to become more efficient. Yakima County has enthusiastically plunged into the experiment. The county also has replaced two court reporters with video cameras.

    Still, the move of technology into courthouses raises questions about authentication. Yakima County, for example, does not take any extra steps to verify e-mails beyond checking that a code contained in the original ticket is included in the message.

    Delia thinks it's unlikely someone would pose as one of the traffic violators and fake an e-mail to the court. "I don't know why anybody would want to do that," he said.

    The adoption of technology in courthouses also presents challenges as local and federal courts try to strike a balance between convenience and privacy. Some privacy groups have fought efforts to put court records online, saying the move would allow any curious soul with a computer to view embarrassing details of someone's divorce or criminal file with just a few mouse clicks. Such information is already public, but people who want to view it have to take the extra step of physically retrieving it from the courthouse. The Internet removes the inconvenience barrier.