Pricey Tickets, Bad Reviews

City's Effort To Collect Overdue Parking Fines Met With Outrage, Protest

April 20, 2009|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,

A recent push by a city-hired collections agency to haul in roughly $132 million in overdue parking tickets has sparked complaints from some who say the fines - averaging $721 - are excessive.

The agency, Linebarger, Goggan, Blair & Sampson, has collected $11.6 million for Baltimore in fines and late penalties from parking scofflaws since late 2006. In its latest collections effort, which started in February, the Texas-based agency sent out 80,000 notices to people with long-unpaid tickets.

But some argue that the city is trying to raise revenue in a dire economy on the backs of people who have seen minor parking tickets - some as low as $21 - swell to hundreds of dollars because the city adds monthly late penalties until the fine is paid.

Jason Howard, a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins University, launched a Facebook group and a blog to protest what he and others believe is an unfair practice of assessing $16 monthly late fees for parking tickets, in perpetuity, until the ticket and fines are paid.

"How can we be expected to pay into a system that's inherently flawed?" said Howard, who acknowledges getting a ticket three years ago but says he can't recall whether he paid it. Howard says he never got the city's late payment notices until he was shocked by the $603 collection notice he received in February.

He thinks the city could be doing a more diligent job of notifying people before the fines escalate into the hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars.

"If the fines can go as high they want, it's in their best interest to let them sit," said Howard.

Seeking to tap the outstanding fines as a revenue source, the city has been referring parking fines that are six months overdue to Linebarger. As of mid-March, the outstanding city parking tickets totaled about 459,000 - with fines amounting to about $181 million, according to city officials.

Scott Peterson, a City Hall spokesman, said the city sent several notices to people who owed fines that were more than six months overdue and who are now part of Linebarger's collections effort. He said that if people feel they do not owe the fines, they can request a District Court hearing.

"That's the legal process that's in place," Peterson said.

Phillipa Bowers, an official who works Linebarger's Baltimore office, declined to comment and referred questions to the city's Bureau of Revenue Collections.

Henry Raymond, chief of the bureau, said the recent collection effort focuses on tickets dating from 2000 to 2008. Under the city contract, Linebarger keeps 20 percent of the money it collects, he said. With that percentage, it would have kept $2.3 million of the $11.6 million it collected for the city.

Raymond said his office sends three delinquency notices to the last official address connected to a person's vehicle registration with the state Motor Vehicle Administration and does the same with out-of-state registrations. After that, the outstanding ticket gets referred to Linebarger, and the MVA can flag owners' accounts, forcing them to settle the fine when they try to re-register their vehicles, he said.

Raymond said his office doesn't have the authority to waive or adjudicate the fines - that's up to a judge in the city District Court. But the city also hasn't reported delinquent account holders to credit bureaus in the past, Raymond said.

District Court won't automatically grant a trial. Daniel Wemhoff, a Virginia motorist and attorney, tried to dispute a parking ticket based on the $16-a-month penalties, which he called excessive, but a city District Court judge denied his request. So he sued the city in federal court, arguing that unlimited monthly late penalties were unconstitutional, court records show.

Wemhoff claimed that he never received the original $23 ticket in 2005, and his fine ballooned to $519. But in December, a federal judge ruled for the city, saying the penalties were not "grossly disproportional" to the underlying offense, according to court records.

Baltimore gave a break to parking scofflaws in 2003, when it held a two-day amnesty in which people were allowed to pay only the face value of the ticket. By law, another amnesty can't be offered until at least 2013. But Howard and others think the city should hold another amnesty, as a quick and easy way to bring in money.

Howard's own ticket, which he received three years ago, grew into a $603 bill. At the time, Howard had Virginia tags on his car, but switched his registration to Maryland about a week after he got the ticket. He says he has had his registration updated with the state for several years, but never got the follow-up notices that the city claims to have sent him.

"People are starting to post their stories," Howard said of the Facebook group. A number of the members live out of state and probably can't travel to Maryland to fight the fines, yet they worry about it affecting their credit rating, he said. "It's socially irresponsible law," Howard said.

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