Cities kick out smartphone app threatening parking ticket revenue

Getting the boot in high-tech fashion

This article was first posted on Stateline, an initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts.

BALTIMORE — On a bone-chilling morning, Cpl. Tiffany Chambers drives her utility van up and down city streets until a loud alarm starts beeping inside her vehicle. A license plate reader connected to two cameras on the van’s rooftop has spotted a parked gray Ford Explorer whose owner has three delinquent parking tickets and is on the “boot list.”

Chambers, a city transportation department officer, jumps out of her van, grabs a yellow U-shaped steel parking boot out of the back and clamps it to the Explorer’s front wheel. Her colleague, Officer Myisha Denman, slaps seizure notices on the windshield and driver’s window.

“Often, these are people who can afford to pay,” Chambers said. “They just ignore the tickets or throw them into the glove compartment.”

Chambers doesn’t use the traditional boots that leave drivers stranded until city workers unlock and remove them. Instead, she immobilizes cars with “SmartBoots” that allow drivers to call a toll-free, 24-hour call center and pay their parking fines and fees with a credit card. Callers receive a code they can punch into a keypad on the boot, so they can quickly unlock and remove it. They return it later.

Baltimore is one of about two dozen cities and counties that use self-release SmartBoots to speed up and improve collection of delinquent parking tickets and make it easier for motorists to pay and go. It started in Hoboken, New Jersey, more than a decade ago, and since has spread to cities including New York, Seattle and Los Angeles.

“It’s very attractive from a workforce efficiency perspective, and it’s much more attractive for our residents,” said James Travers, transportation bureau chief in Stamford, Connecticut, which expects to start its SmartBoot program this week. “If you’re coming back to your car with an ice cream, it isn’t even melted by the time you get into it and go on your way.”

Not everybody is a fan. Critics say SmartBoots help cities perpetuate a system that disproportionately harms those who can least afford to pay.

“The system [of booting and towing] is focused on getting money and revenue collection,” said Myesha Braden of the Washington, D.C.-based Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “An offender-funded justice system means the poor get a different quality of justice than those who are not poor.”

In that respect, SmartBoots are no different than traditional boots or towing, said Braden, who directs the group’s criminal justice project.

“If I can afford to give them my credit card number and punch in a code, I can go on my way,” she said. “If I’m poor, my car stays there. If I’ve got to pick up my kid from school, I can’t. If I have a medical appointment, I can’t drive there. If I have a job interview, I wouldn’t be able to get there.”

Less labor required

Local governments and universities are placing SmartBoots on more than 150,000 vehicles a year, according to Justin Kennedy, CEO of PayLock, the Somerville, New Jersey-based company that builds the devices, takes motorists’ calls and processes the payments. The company gets paid by car owners, not cities.

The boots weigh about 16 pounds. Car owners are given a certain amount of time, often 24 to 48 hours, to turn them in. Cities and counties may have one or several return locations. If drivers don’t think they can lift the boot, cities will send out a boot removal team, although some contract with PayLock to do that as well, Kennedy said.

Car owners face late fees if they don’t bring back the boot by the deadline, and a penalty of up to $500 if they fail to return it. And they’ll still be on the hook for all the unpaid parking fines, fees and penalties.

Before using self-release boots in Baltimore, a city enforcement team would travel around releasing every traditional boot. The self-release system requires less labor, which makes it more cost-efficient, said transportation department senior adviser Frank Murphy.

Baltimore’s transportation department has 80 SmartBoots, and its enforcement teams, which are on the road Monday through Friday from 4 a.m. to 7 p.m., use them often, given the number of parking violators.

On the day Chambers clamped the boot on the Explorer, 25,263 citations were eligible for the device in her computer system. Some had been on that list for years. Those who are boot-eligible must have three or more delinquent parking tickets over 30 days old.

Baltimore motorists who get the boot are charged $150, of which $100 goes to PayLock and $50 to the city. They have seven days to return it.

Last year, Baltimore attached a boot to 5,918 vehicles, 446 of which got it twice, according to Murphy. Motorists paid $1.7 million in delinquent tickets and fines.

Boot bummer

No one is happy to discover a parking boot on their car.

“I’ve seen them run out at 4 or 5 in the morning in their underwear, screaming and hollering,” Baltimore’s Chambers said.

Some scofflaws have figured out how to outsmart SmartBoots, just as they have with traditional boots. They’ve been able to pry them off and toss them away, or occasionally destroy them.

But if they do, they’ll be responsible for coughing up that $500 fine.

And cities that use self-release boots haven’t totally given up towing offenders’ cars. They still do it when, for example, a vehicle is parked in a tow-away zone or in front of a fire hydrant, or if it gets a boot and the owner doesn’t pay and just leaves it sitting there.

In many communities, owners whose cars have gotten a traditional boot or have been towed must go to a government office during business hours to pay the delinquent tickets before they can get their car back. If it’s closed, they’re out of luck.

And if the car has been towed, they’ll also need to get to the impound lot to retrieve it and shell out even more -- and sometimes a storage fee.

That’s what has been happening in Stamford, which, until now, has towed cars routinely.

That system not only has been inconvenient for residents; it’s also a waste of time for city employees, said transportation chief Travers. An enforcement officer calls a police officer, who then has to call the towing company.

“We have two people waiting around for 30 or 45 minutes for the tow truck operator to come,” Travers said. “It’s lost productivity. And the opportunity for conflict [with the car’s owner] is rising.”

Stamford only tows Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. until 3:30 pm. In theory, Travers said, that’s so people can come to city hall to pay their tickets and get a form to reclaim their car.

“The reality is that didn’t really happen,” he said. “City hall is often closed by the time you can get there. You have no way to get home. You have a day’s storage charges.”

Once the program begins this week, Stamford offenders can remove the boot from their own car any time, day or night. They’ll owe $170 for the boot, of which $120 goes to PayLock and $50 to the city for an administrative charge. That’s less than the $300 minimum they would have paid if their car was towed, Travers said.

Easier and cheaper

In California, Pasadena switched from towing to self-release boots in June, and it’s made a difference, said transportation department parking manager Jon Hamblen.

“Now, people don’t have to come to us to pay their tickets. They can do it remotely,” Hamblen said. “And they don’t have to pay the tow yard and the storage fee.”

Instead, violators pay what they owe, plus a $162 boot release fee, of which $105 goes to PayLock and the rest to the city for administrative costs.

Boot-eligible car owners -- those with five or more past due parking citations -- owe the city of Pasadena about $2 million, according to Hamblen. Since it started using the boots seven months ago, the city has collected more than $100,000.

“It has reduced lines in the [cashier’s] office,” he said, “because we’re not handling as many customers paying their tickets, so it’s taking a bit of a load off.”

Local governments are allowed to use boots and towing only on public streets and rights of way, not on private property.

Even so, some cities and states recognize that low-income people can be hit the hardest by boots and towing.

California, for example, passed a law in 2017 allowing indigent people who meet certain qualifications to enter into payment plans for their citations. As long as they’re current on payments, they’re not eligible for boots or towing for past citations.

“We hope low-income people take advantage of those payment plans so we don’t boot them in the first place,” Hamblen said.

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