Parking tickets are a depressing fact of life. Metropolises depend on the little day-ruining envelopes for a hefty chunk of their operating budget—Los Angeles raked in over $160 million from parking tickets in the 2013-2014 fiscal year. That's a nice little regressive tax windfall for the public sector.
Now, private security companies in several major cities have started surreptitiously issuing similar parking violation notices—stuck under the windshield, in a brightly colored envelope, just like the real thing.
The thing is, these tickets aren't real. Only the city has the authority to collect parking fines—which means those private tickets? They aren't worth the laser-printer paper they're printed on.
Still, most people tend to just pay up because that's what you're trained to do when you get an authoritative-looking piece of paper. Los Angeles residents received 2.65 million tickets from the city in 2012-2013, less than 56,000 of which were successfully overturned. If they aren't paid, there's the risk of getting booted, towed, or—if they advance to scofflaw status—an outstanding warrant.
Private ticket-writing companies take advantage of those fears. But unlike the repercussions of blowing off a city-issued parking ticket, those private-issued ones are no more legit than a mall cop's badge. In other words, in most cities, nothing will happen to you if you decline to pay.
Want to get out of paying for parking garages too? Motherboard presents a map of hackable smart parking garages.
There are exceptions. In Portland, for example, a private lot can issue tickets if "the company issuing them is a registered operator and the parking facility is registered with the city." Fines are set and private lot attendants function as deputized meter maids.
But there aren't many cities that run their local government like Portland. A more emblematic example might be Los Angeles, where everyone has a car and parking tickets are simply a way of life. The Attorney General of California ruled in 2011 that "private property owners may not acquire, by means of issuing a written warning or posting signage, the right to issue parking citations imposing monetary sanctions to the owners of vehicles parked on their property." Pretty straightforward refutation of the practice.
The Attorney General went one step further by anticipating how private parking lot operators would respond to their tickets being ignored. Once again, they sided against the lot owners, writing that, "The vehicle owner may have grounds to seek damages arising from the property owner's conduct, such as threatening to report or reporting a delinquency on the part of the vehicle owner to credit reporting agencies."
So not only is no payment due, but if the parking company tries to put a collection agency on you, you might have the option to sue.
Private institutions continue to write the fraudulent tickets. And why not? Anybody who pays is literally just giving them free cash.
Within Los Angeles, only the city has the authority to collect on tickets. And they're not going to write them on a private lot, with one federally mandated exception. Bruce Gillman, the spokesman for the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, told me that "the only way [the Department of Transportation] can go and give a ticket on a private lot is if someone is illegally parked in a handicapped space or has made a fraudulent handicapped sign." Handicapped parking is mandated by the American with Disabilities Act, and the government can enforce its availability. Besides that, the city doesn't get involved in what amounts to a private dispute.
Even four years after the Attorney General ruled that these tickets are basically unenforceable requests for money, private institutions continue to write them. And why not? Anybody who pays is literally just giving them free cash.
In June, Arthur Manuyak received a ticket (below) for $54 from a Westco lot in Glendale, California. The lot was unmanned, with only a box to slip money into. "There was just a broken-down shack where the entrance is," he told me. "You're supposed to put your cash in a slot and drop it into the box. But there's no one working. It all seemed a little sketchy to me. If it looked more realistic I would have paid."
Manukyan copped to not having paid for his 15 minutes in the lot. But he explained that after looking at the back of the ticket he decided he didn't trust paying the fine at all, having discovered it was a for-profit fine. "The sketchiest part," he added, "is the [processing] company isn't even in California."
I tried talking to the operator of the lot, a man named Armando, whose number was listed on the shed as the person to direct "all questions" towards. When I explained the story I was working on, he declined to comment.
There is no reason a person couldn't set up an account, write their friend a ticket for "being a total dick," and then when they don't pay, use Clancy's software to sic a collection agency on them.
I was interested in how the rest of the for-profit ticketing industry worked, so I found that out-of-state company up the chain. It was a Denver-based company called Clancy Systems International, which sells everything you would need to write your own tickets and process them: hand-helds, printers, Android smartphones, and tablets to help run the operation. They also offer software that direct parking lot owners how to initiate collections.
I talked to Liz Wolfson, one of the partners in Clancy, to sort out how the for-private ticketing industry was supplied. Wolfson prefaced my questions by giving, in her words, a "lecture" on the issue: "It is important for private companies to have the ability to [issue tickets]. They are selling a commodity. They are selling parking. They are exchanging goods of services. They have bought or leased that property. They deserve to be paid."
It's a fair point. But the issue isn't whether or not they deserve compensation for renting spaces in their lot. It's the lack of a check and balance in the profit motive. Why would a private company ever overturn a ticket they issued? What if a private company issues a ticket in error?
Wolfson explained that mistakes do happen: "[Vehicle owners] paid for the wrong stall, for instance, or the ticket falls off the dashboard. In that case, they just mail in a copy of the paid receipt. We see lots of voids." But, she conceded, "I'm not going to tell you there aren't bad apples."
"Bad apples" are the kind of parking lot owners who serve as judge, jury, and (ticket-issuing) executioner. Where it works something like, "Have a problem with my fine? You can appeal to me, but I have a feeling I'm going to side with me."
I asked what constituted a "bad apple," and how widespread the practice was. Clancy's business is, in her estimate, 92 percent public entities—cities, counties, etc—while the remaining 8 percent is private clients. That's also where a major problem arose.
Wolfson said a few years ago they got in trouble after a parking lot in Buffalo, New York was issuing tickets that looked suspiciously like city tickets. Which wasn't surprising: Clancy supplied both the city and company their ticketing systems.
After that issue, Wolfson said private companies were advised not to use certain language on their tickets. Using a city's name on a ticket was verboten. Also, using the official-sounding term "violation" was a big no-no, though that didn't stop the company that issued Manukyan's ticket from using the word on their ticket.
Even if Clancy has suggested guidelines for their clients, they are unenforceable. Since they are not bound by law, and literally anyone can buy a system and write their own tickets, there is no reason a person couldn't set up an account with Clancy, write their friend a $54 ticket for "being a total dick," and then when they don't pay like the total dick they are, use Clancy's software to sic a collection agency on them.
Security companies and lot owners are only allowed one way to punish people who park illegally in their lot or violate some "law" of the lot. In California, private entities cannot boot cars or write tickets—but they can tow your car, as long as it is clearly posted where the car will be towed. Otherwise, people could just park willy-nilly. The ability to tow for parking illegally—effectively trespassing—serves as the deterrent, making tickets nothing more than a scheme.
The question is whether or not issuing fines is more a harsh deterrent or an intentionally deceptive money-making scam. To be sure, parking lot owners deserve to be paid for renting out their land. And they should be able to react when people park without paying, lest every parking lot turn into the Great American Car-Dump.
But that's also why private lots are allowed to remove cars that are parked illegally. And as far as collecting payments, pay stations that count people when they go in and make them pay to get out seem to work just fine for the vast majority of lots—more so than using a metal box then paying someone to walk around and issue excessive fines.
It's pretty damn hard to see why a private company should issue a "ticket" for any reason other than to take advantage of people's already-instilled instinct to pay a fine it's notoriously hard to fight. And in the case of a private lot, it's a fine they have zero reason to ever overturn.
While the laws vary slightly from city to city, one truism in the private parking lot industry is that they do not have the authority to fine you any more than I do. Unless they are contracted by the city, or the city itself issues the ticket, a private entity cannot act as a low-stakes Judge Dredd "I am the law" meter maid. So feel free to ignore them.
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