Cops in tiny Mountain View write more tickets than big cities. Some on the force have troubled pasts.
MOUNTAIN VIEW - A 9Wants to Know investigation reveals a tiny town in the Denver metro area dishes out more "obstructed view" citations than Denver, Aurora and Boulder combined.
9WTK: Tiny metro town 'addicted' to tickets. 9NEWS at 10 p.m. 05/19/14.
"It's hard for me to understand what they're doing is not extortion or racketeering," William Asperi said while waiting to appear for traffic court. "What they're doing is pretty shady."
Nearly half of Mountain View's revenue comes from court fees and citations, according to its 2014 budget.
Fired officers dish out tickets. 9NEWS at 9 p.m., 5/20/14.
The town, which is only 12 square blocks, is located just south of Lakeside and west of Denver. Drivers are often oblivious to the town's existence until they get pulled over for things like cracked windshields or air fresheners hanging on rearview mirrors.
9NEWS observed town police at the corner of Sheridan Boulevard and 44th Avenue almost daily as they pulled people over.
A review of records obtained by 9NEWS show Mountain View's police issued nearly 900 obstructed view citations in 2013.
The town's "obstructed view" traffic code is broadly interpreted by police and its judge to not only include windshield cracks, but anything hanging from a rearview mirror.
Court audio files obtained by 9NEWS reveal just how strict the town interprets its obstructed view traffic code.
"Don't hang things from your mirror. Graduation tassels, rosaries," Mountain View Judge Mark Pautler tells people during traffic court. "Those things, in of themselves, are considered obstruction by the law."
A look at the numbers for 2013:
A review of records also shows Mountain View police issued more seatbelt citations for adults in 2013 than Aurora, Boulder and Denver.
9NEWS reviewed Mountain View's budget which shows the town expects to make $575,000 in court fees in 2014. That's about 43 percent of the town's revenue, the biggest moneymaker, beating out taxes and other permitting fees.
But the amount Mountain View makes in court fees essentially covers the amount it spends on its police department.
Thanks to its aggressive ticket writing, Mountain View plans to spend $535,000 on public safety and police, which is also the town's biggest expense.
A typical "obstructed view" citation alone can run someone $80, which includes a $30 surcharge.
According to payroll records obtained by 9Wants To Know, Mountain View employs nine sworn law-enforcement officers who are either employed full-time or part-time.
Chief Mark Toth is the highest paid officer at $26 an hour. Seven other officers of lower rank make $18 an hour, according to records.
"The entire reason that Mountain View exist is to harass and extort money from motorists," Denver attorney David Lane said.
In 2006, Lane filed a class-action lawsuit against Mountain View and its police department for pulling people over outside of the town's jurisdiction. Lane alleged the traffic stops outside Mountain View's borders were a violation of the Fourth Amendment.
"We alleged that the town of Mountain View, as a municipality, was a racketeering organization. They were simply extorting people," Lane said. "The entire court system is in the pocket of Mountain View."
Lane's lawsuit was eventually dismissed by a federal judge who felt Mountain View police officers were not violating the constitution.
Once a month Mountain View's small town hall converts into a tiny courtroom, complete with a judge, a clerk and a podium where drivers can plead their case.
9Wants To Know spent a full day at court and observed people begging Judge Mark Pautler for financial mercy with numerous citations on one ticket.
"I just think they're out for money," Claudine Cordova complained outside the courthouse.
She claimed she's on a limited income and can't afford her citations, including obstructed view.
"They're watching you, waiting for you to do something wrong," Cordova said.
During April's traffic court, numerous drivers who received seatbelt violations and obstructed-view citations asked the judge for a payment plan. The court expects people to pay at least one-third of any given citation.
"I don't want to be signing warrants out to have you picked up and brought in because you haven't paid," the judge said to people in the courtroom.
In some cases, the court allows drivers to pay their citations in full without having to appear before a judge.
Records obtained by 9Wants To Know shows Mountain View's judge Mark Pautler is paid $75-per-hour on a contractual basis.
While observing court proceedings, 9Wants To Know found a vehicle belonging to Mountain View Police Officer Rick Jackson that had fuzzy dice hanging off the rearview mirror.
As Officer Jackson left the courthouse, he wouldn't comment about his apparent violation of the town's strict traffic code.
Jackson said he's never issued such a citation, but continued his mantra of "no comment" when asked if he was breaking the law himself.
9Wants To Know Reporter Jeremy Jojola noticed Mountain View Officer Rick Jackson had fuzzy dice hanging from his rearview mirror, which could be considered an "obstructed view." Watch the officer's reaction to Jojola's questions. 9NEWS.com. 05/19/14
According to the town's website, Mountain View began in 1904 with 375 inhabitants. As of the last U.S. Census, 507 people currently live within the town's borders which encompass a two-block-by-six-block area.
9Wants To Know Reporter Jeremy Jojola takes us on the short drive around the Town of Mountain View. 9NEWS.com. 05/19/14.
Mountain View is about 64 acres, which is smaller than Sports Authority Field at Mile High at 89 acres, and Wash Park at 161 acres.
The town shares a two-block border with Denver along Sheridan Boulevard where many of the traffic stops occur.
Police are often seen on the town's northern border with Lakeside, on 44th Avenue.
9NEWS could only find one road sign indicating the town's existence on 41st Avenue, just west of Sheridan Boulevard.
The town hall itself, an unassuming brick building next to a small park, blends in with the rest of the neighborhood, on Benton Street.
According to public records, the town employs four other people aside from police, including a town clerk, a public works director, a court clerk and a court-clerk assistant.
Mountain View Mayor Jeff Kiddie and Chief of Police Mark Toth declined repeated requests by 9Wants To Know for an on-camera interview.
During the April town hall meeting, 9Wants to Know asked the town council during the public comment section about its ticketing practice and philosophy.
"Is this ticketing practice about public safety, or is it more about money?" 9Wants To Know asked.
Town Councilor Louis Fehlberg cited Denver's red-light camera program.
"I don't think we are out of any reason whatsoever," Fehlberg said.
"You pose a compelling question," Councilor Patricia Lilliston said. "But from my experience and the people of Mountain View, I believe they appreciate the safety."
Chief Toth sent a statement to 9NEWS on the day of this publication. Here's his entire statement:
Thank you for providing me the opportunity to respond to your story. We have a duty to every Mountain View citizen to ensure that they feel like they live in a safe environment and that includes travelling the streets in and through our town limits. Our town includes 44th Ave and Sheridan Blvd which alone handles between 35,000 and 40,000 vehicles a day. Citizens expect that we enforce traffic laws as well as municipal ordinances and state statutes. No one likes to get a ticket but they do serve as a deterrent. It is the decision of our elected officials and citizens that we provide police services in our community 24/7. We employ the fewest officers possible to provide that coverage.
Nearly half of current Mountain View Police had troubled pasts with prior departments, a 9Wants To Know investigation revealed.
A 9Wants to Know investigation reveals nearly half of Mountain View's police force has either been fired, faced a criminal indictment or left prior law enforcement jobs under controversy.
On Monday, 9Wants to Know exposed how Mountain View dishes out more "obstructed view" citations than Aurora, Denver and Boulder combined.
"It does raise an eyebrow," said Denise Maes, the public policy director for Denver's ACLU. "And we at the ACLU have had a dealing or two with a couple of them."
Nine police officers make up the town's police force. After requesting numerous employment and payroll records from Mountain View and other law-enforcement agencies, 9Wants to Know is able to identify four police officers who had trouble with their prior agencies.
Officer Kirk Firko was fired as a Colorado State Trooper for his role in the killing of a Grand Junction man in 2010. Firko kicked in the door of the man's home during a warrantless entry. His partner fatally shot Jason Kemp.
The case resulted in criminal indictments, which were eventually dismissed.
The state ended up paying out a $1-million settlement in a wrongful death suit.
Officer Leonard Portugal was fired from the Adams County Sheriff's Department for violating the agency's rules of conduct. A department spokesperson said he was prohibited from releasing what rules Portugal allegedly violated.
Officer Brian Kautz left his police job in Westminster under controversy. According to his last Westminster Police Department performance review obtained by 9NEWS, Kautz received "unacceptable" marks for general work and communication. About a month after the poor review, Kautz left his job.
Westminster City officials said they were prohibited by law from disclosing if Kautz was fired or if he was allowed to resign.
When 9NEWS approached Kautz for comment, he sped off in his Mountain View Police unit without comment.
Chief of Police Mark Toth was once under indictment for beating up a man and lying on a police report as a Westminster sergeant.
Toth left the department soon after the incident and was eventually found not-guilty by a jury.
Toth told 9NEWS he retired from Westminster.
Toth and Mountain View's Mayor Jeff Kiddie repeatedly declined interviews with 9NEWS regarding its ticketing practice and the histories of the town's officers.
"Just because I don't want to," Toth said over the phone. "You can try, but nobody else wants to talk to you either."
During a town meeting, 9NEWS asked the town council what it thought about its police force while Toth and Mayor Kiddie were at the table.
Nobody answered our question.
When asked if there were any concerns about the integrity of the police department, Mayor Kiddie said "Nope."
In a previous town hall meeting, one town councilor said residents appreciate the level of safety in Mountain View.
With Mountain View being only 12 square blocks, it can nearly place an officer on nearly every block.
The town has eight times more officers than the national average when it comes to the ration of police to citizens.
The average number of officers per 1,000 people is about 2.3. Denver and Aurora each have an average of two officers per 1,000.
"They have an extraordinarily high level of officers," said Dr. Lonnie Schaible, a criminal-justice professor at the University of Colorado Denver. "I did some background statistics, and they're in about the 94th percentile compared to similar-sized cities."
Schaible says the town's ticketing philosophy may not actually deter dangerous driving either.
"There's no real evidence that writing a citation or a ticket is any more beneficial than giving a warning or having a presence of officers in the area," Schaible said.
In the first part of this report, 9NEWS found Mountain View Officer Ricky Jackson with his own "obstructed view" hanging off his rearview mirror: fuzzy dice.
Schaible added if officers don't follow the law themselves, that could generate distrust among the public.
"It could also degrade relationships with police if it isn't conducted in a way that's consistent with the principals or philosophies of community oriented policing," Schaible said.
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