By Tim Dees
Law enforcement agencies are increasingly moving away from paper traffic tickets (also called citations or summons) toward nearly paperless e-Citation methods. In most cases, the only paper involved in the process is the copy provided to the violator. With some systems, that paper is no larger than a grocery store receipt. Here's a few points to consider when purchasing an electronic citations system:
e-Citations often claim to save time, but most of the time saved isn't the issuing officer's. It typically takes an officer about the same amount of time to issue an e-Citation as it does with a paper system, although the electronic product usually looks more professional and is easier to read. The greatest time savings comes from not having to re-key information from a paper citation into local, state and court database systems.
It also reduces the number of errors caused by bad handwriting, transposed numbers, and misspelled names. Officers choose the appropriate violation title and code number from a drop-down list, so there's never an issue with issuing a ticket with a violation title that doesn't match its corresponding section in your traffic laws.
The decision as to what hardware to buy may be dictated by the laws in your state. If your state requires the violator to sign the citation, you will need some type of handheld computer that can capture that signature, signed on the screen using a stylus. If there is no such requirement, then the same notebook computers installed in your patrol cars will work just fine. e-Citation does not require a lot of computing horsepower.
Most states are issuing drivers licenses and registration certificates with 2D barcodes (a rectangle filled with tiny dots) or magnetic stripes. Barcodes need an optical scanner; magstripes need a card reader similar to those used at retail cash registers. These barcodes and magstripes generally contain all of the information on the license or certificate.
You will also need a mobile printer. There are printers intended to be "worn," but they usually aren't practical for an armed police officer who is already carrying a lot of gear. Thermal printers mounted in the patrol car or in a motorcycle saddlebag use no ink, and a roll of paper equivalent to 100 sheets costs about $8.
If your e-Citation system is going to "phone home" to wirelessly transmit ticket data, query motor vehicles databases, or run wants checks from the scanned data, you will need to use a wireless network. Most agencies use networks provided by cell phone carriers like Sprint, AT&T or Verizon. Satisfaction is usually dependent on which carrier is best provisioned in your operating area.
When choosing a vendor for e-Citations systems, try not to be their first customer in your state. Each state's "switcher" that controls computer traffic between databases of your state and others is unique. There is always a lot of fine tuning to get new systems to communicate with switchers. Let someone else do the heavy lifting, and go with a solution already proven in your state.
Tim Dees is a retired police officer and the former editor of two major law enforcement websites who writes and consults on technology applications in criminal justice. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.