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Everlasting life for N.Y. traffic tickets

Imagine this: You go out to your mailbox to find a notice for a traffic ticket you don’t ever remember getting – from 1983.

It happened to Michael Graham, and as stories about the state Department of Motor Vehicles go, this one has all the makings of a classic.

The 54-year-old bank employee doesn’t think he even owned a car 32 years ago, but details grow fuzzy after three decades. Back then, he said, he was working for the Buffalo Bisons, living on the East Side and riding the No. 2 bus everywhere after his 1974 Plymouth Satellite Sebring Plus was stolen. It was never located, and Graham didn’t own another car until his aunt gave him a Reliant before the big snowstorm of 1985.

But in between, on April 18, 1983, on some unidentified car connected to Graham, there was a ticket for an uninspected vehicle. It was never paid. That’s what the DMV wrote to tell Graham earlier this month as it transferred all of its open Buffalo traffic cases to the city’s new Buffalo Traffic Violations Agency.

“If this actually happened, I’d be shocked,” said Graham, who now lives in Cheektowaga and theorizes that if a ticket was written, it was given to that old Satellite after it was stolen.

Graham said he has renewed his license for years and has no memory of ever getting a notice for this ticket.

As it turns out, Graham is not the only one dealing with a decades-old headache.

The City of Buffalo won a victory when the state finally allowed it to handle traffic tickets, the way towns have done for years. The move lets the city keep more revenue and gives drivers the option of pleading down tickets.

But the process hasn’t been seamless. With the city’s new powers came 30,162 open tickets on the DMV’s books.

A third of the cases are from the last two years. But the bulk of them – 19,121, to be exact – are from 1993 or before, prior to the state’s tightening penalties for those who ignore traffic tickets. Two of the tickets date from 1971.

It’s pretty clear from numbers provided by the DMV that the 1993 change in the law worked. Since then, an unanswered ticket means a default conviction. There are just 116 traffic tickets that remain open in Buffalo from 2013. Compare that with 1,161 from 1993 and 1,333 from 1983.

When the state transferred the open cases, it notified every one they would be getting a new appearance date.

You can imagine the calls the city has been getting.

“A transition of this magnitude is difficult,” said Buffalo Parking Commissioner Kevin Helfer, who oversees the new agency.

Helfer said the city will immediately deal with the recent tickets. But officials are now researching a fair “process and a protocol” for the older tickets.

What’s the meaning of a 32-year-old traffic ticket? Serious crimes have statutes of limitations. But traffic tickets? They just don’t go away. At least, that is, until you leave this earth. “A lot of people have mailed in or have come in with death certificates,” Helfer said. “We immediately clear those.”

It seems worth saving the personnel to let the really old tickets go. Nobody who has paid a ticket wants someone else to get away with it, but it’s tough to imagine successfully enforcing a ticket written the year “The Natural” was filmed and Jim Kelly was drafted.

For now, though, there’s this takeaway from Graham’s story: No one escapes the DMV.