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AGO 1991 No. 12 - March 28, 1991
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Ken Eikenberry | 1981-1992 | Attorney General of Washington

CITIES AND TOWNS ‑- COURTS ‑- TRAFFIC INFRACTIONS

RCW 3.50.030 and 3.30.090 provide for the establishment of violations bureaus to assist in the processing of traffic infraction cases.  A traffic violations bureau does not have the authority to enter default judgments or assess penalties, when a person who is issued a notice of traffic infraction fails to respond.  In addition, a court cannot delegate these judicial functions to a nonjudicial agency such as a traffic violations bureau.

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                                                                  March 28, 1991

            RCW 3.50.030.

            Similarly, RCW 3.30.090 authorizes city or district courts having jurisdiction of traffic cases to establish a violations bureau to assist in processing traffic cases.2/

            RCW 3.30.090 provides in part that:

            A violations bureau may be established by any city or district court having jurisdiction of traffic cases to assist in processing traffic cases.  As designated by written order of the court having jurisdiction of traffic cases, specific offenses under city ordinance, county resolution, or state law may be processed by such bureau.  Such bureau may be authorized to receive the posting of bail for such specified offenses, and,as authorized by court order, to accept forfeiture of bail and payment of monetary penalties.  Thecourt order shall specify the amount of bail to be posted and shall also specify the circumstances or conditions which will require an appearance before the court.

             [[Orig. Op. Page 3]]

(Emphasis added)

            Chapter 46.63 RCW addresses the processing of traffic infractions.  One section, RCW 46.63.070(5)(a), is particularly applicable to your inquiry.  It provides:

            If any person issued a notice of traffic infraction:

                        (i) Fails to respond to the notice of traffic infraction as provided in subsection (2) of this section; or
                        (ii) Fails to appear at a hearing requested pursuant to subsection (3) or (4) of this section;

the court shall enter an appropriate orderassessing the monetary penalty prescribed for the traffic infraction and any other penalty authorized by this chapter and shall notify the department in accordance with RCW 46.20.270, of the failure to respond to the notice of infraction or to appear at a requested hearing.

(Emphasis added).  RCW 46.63.070(5)(a).  If a penalty assessed under chapter 46.63 RCW is not timely paid, the court shall notify the Department of Licensing of the failure to pay the penalty.  RCW 46.63.110(5).

            In addition, the Washington Supreme Court has adopted rules establishing procedures to be followed in cases involving traffic infractions.3/

            JTIR 2.5 states:

            If the defendant fails to respond to a notice of traffic infraction, the court shall enter an order finding that the defendant has committed the infraction, shall assess any monetary penalties provided for by law, and shall notify the Department4/

            of the defendant's failure to respond in accordance with RCW 46.20.270.

            With this background in mind, we turn to your questions.

             [[Orig. Op. Page 4]]

                                                                     ANALYSIS

Question 1:

            Can a municipal traffic violations bureau clerk, at the direction of the police chief, enter a default judgment against defendants who have failed to respond, assess additional penalties required by RCW 46.63.110 and report those failures directly to the Department of Licensing, without the permission of or action by the court?

            Our answer is no.  Violations bureaus operate under the supervision of municipal courts and the function of violations bureaus is to assist courts in processing traffic cases.  See RCW 3.30.090; 3.50.030.  Neither chapter 3.30 RCW or chapter 3.50 RCW, which authorize the creation of traffic violations bureaus, expressly provide that such bureaus have authority to issue default judgments or assess penalties.

            RCW 46.63.070 assigns to courts the responsibility to enter orders assessing appropriate monetary penalties and notify the Department of Licensing when a person issued a notice of traffic infraction fails to respond.  The Legislature has provided no other method for handling the situation where a person fails to respond to a traffic infraction notice.

            Furthermore, we believe that issuing default judgments is a judicial act which ordinarily may be performed only by an officer in the judicial branch of government.  Deciding whether to issue a default judgment necessarily involves exercising discretion which, unless statutes indicate otherwise, is typically performed by courts.  In fact, RCW 3.50.020 expressly provides that municipal courts are empowered to hear and determine all causes, including traffic infractions, arising under city ordinances and to pronounce judgment accordingly.  The Legislature did not grant similar powers to violations bureaus.

            If the Legislature had intended that courts be permitted to authorize violations bureaus to enter default judgments, assess penalties or notify the Department of Licensing, it would probably have indicated this intent more clearly in either RCW 3.30.090, RCW 3.50.030 or RCW 46.63.090.5/

            Given that neither  [[Orig. Op. Page 5]] the laws creating traffic violations bureaus nor the law addressing the processing of traffic infractions indicates such intent, we conclude that the Legislature did not anticipate violations bureaus to issue default judgments.

Question 2:

            Can a district court, by court order, delegate to a traffic violations bureau clerk the authority to enter default judgments, assess additional penalties, and report failures to appear to the Department of Licensing?

            As explained below, we conclude that a district court may not do so.  RCW 3.30.090 appears to limit the authority of district courts to delegate judicial functions to nonjudicial agencies such as traffic violations bureaus.  This statute and JTIR 2.5 closely define the role of courts and violations bureaus and do not appear to authorize transfers of authority between the two.

            RCW 3.30.090 specifically assigns certain responsibilities to courts and describes other activities which may be performed by violations bureaus.  For example, violations bureaus may be authorized to receive bail for offenses designated by the court and, as authorized by court order, to accept bail forfeiture and penalty payments.  RCW 3.30.090.  RCW 3.30.090 does not expressly permit courts to authorize violations bureaus to enter default judgments, assess additional penalties, or directly report failures to respond.  We infer that since the Legislature specifically identified certain activities district courts may  [[Orig. Op. Page 6]] authorize violations bureaus to undertake, the Legislature intended to omit other activities, such as entering default judgments.

            In addition, as we previously discussed, the decision to enter a judgment in a case is a fairly central judicial function which would not typically be transferred to a nonjudicial or administrative agency.  However, we do not mean to indicate that under the laws governing violations bureaus and the processing of traffic infractions, violations bureaus may not perform administrative tasks to assist courts in processing traffic infractions.  It is unlikely that the statutory scheme anticipated that courts alone would perform all ministerial duties.  In this opinion, we distinguish between decisions involving the exercise of discretion which are properly performed by the courts, such as deciding whether to enter default judgments, and administrative tasks necessary to assist courts in processing traffic cases.  We see no reason why administrative tasks, such as mailing notices of court decisions, may not be performed by a nonjudicial body.

            In summary, we conclude that a municipal traffic violations bureau clerk may not enter default judgments against defendants who have failed to respond, assess additional penalties or report such failures directly to the Department of Licensing without permission of or action by the court.  We also conclude that district courts may not delegate to a traffic violations bureau clerk the authority to enter default judgments, assess penalties or report failures to respond to the Department of Licensing.

            We trust the foregoing will be of assistance to you.

Very truly yours,

KENNETH O. EIKENBERRY
Attorney General

LAURIE S. HALVORSON
Assistant Attorney General

                                                         ***   FOOTNOTES   ***

1/Also see RCW 3.50.020, which provides that the municipal court has "exclusive original jurisdiction over traffic infractions arising under city ordinances".  Note that in AGO 1981 No. 4, we concluded that RCW 46.63.040 does not vest a municipal or police court with jurisdiction over a traffic infraction based on an alleged violation of state law, as distinguished from local law.

2/The Court Improvement Act of 1984 brought the justices of the peace into the district court system.  See RCW 3.30.015; In Re Eng, 113 Wn.2d 178, 776 P.2d 1336 (1989).  Chapter 3.50 RCW provides the alternative municipal court provision for cities with a population of 400,000 or less.  See RCW 3.50.010.

3/The Washington Supreme Court is required to set by rule a schedule of monetary penalties for designated traffic infractions.  RCW 46.63.110(2).

4/Refers to the Washington State Department of Licensing.  JTIR 1.2(g).

5/See e.g., In Re Dillenburg v. Maxwell, 70 Wn.2d 331, 413 P.2d 940 (1966).  In that case, the court found that an order signed by a chief probation officer was void because it was not signed by a judge of the superior court.  The relevant statute, RCW 13.04.120, stated "the court, in its discretion, may order such child to be turned over to the proper officers for trial under the provisions of the criminal code."  (Emphasis added).  The court concluded:

            If the legislature had intended to authorize probation officers to execute court orders in lieu of, or at the direction of, a juvenile court, it would have so provided by definite language in the act.

70 Wn.2d 331, 342-43.

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