These boots were made for lockin’

Parking tickets are down, but the infamous ‘boot’ citations are the kicker

The city boot team found Crystal McCarthy’s ride and locked up the driver’s side wheel when her citations became delinquent.

The city boot team found Crystal McCarthy’s ride and locked up the driver’s side wheel when her citations became delinquent.

SN&R Photo By Nicholas Miller

It’s not quite A&E channel’s Parking Wars, where Philadelphia enforcement officers battle enraged car owners, but the new-look parking-enforcement campaign in the central city has Sacramentans taking notice.

Innovative camera and meter equipment, which includes new card-and-coin meters and license-plate-recognition camera technology, has parking tickets overall down significantly. But boot-team citations, where officers place a clumsy orange clamp on your wheel, rendering your ride inoperable, are up some 400 percent over 2005’s totals. Getting your car booted can be a major hassle. Just ask Crystal McCarthy.

A 23-year-old downtown resident and barista at a Midtown coffeehouse, McCarthy was making lattes early one morning when parking enforcement rolled up next to her Honda. Having already racked up a handful of tickets—all unpaid—she wasn’t overly concerned about another in a long line of violations. For that matter, she was parked in a free, unmetered zone. No worries, right?

Wrong. The boot team had found her.

“I thought it was a ticket or something, then I saw a guy scrunched down, putting death metal on my car,” McCarthy recalled. She ran streetside and pleaded her case (as those getting the boot always do), but it was too late: She’d been booted.

“Within the past month or so, I’ve definitely had the most tickets ever,” McCarthy said. “Most of them were from working, paying the meter and it running out like an hour before I was off work.” With a $100 boot fee and delinquent tickets, it would cost her more than $700 to remove the lock and get her car back. McCarthy didn’t have that kind of money, but she had three business days to come up with the cash … or have her car towed and impounded.

That said, to get a boot on your vehicle, you have to earn it. First, you have to accumulate five or more tickets. The average parking violation in the central city costs $35, and if it goes unpaid for more than 21 days, the fee shoots to $75. If five citations go unpaid for more than 45 days, then you’re on the boot team’s list—which means they’ll be looking for you with their high-tech cameras. If they boot you, add another $100 onto the tab.

SN&R hung out last week with a boot crew member who explained how his job’s changed ever since the new technology’s arrival. Last year, he and his partner, who make up the entire city boot crew, booted 713 cars, which accounted for $409,000 in citations. Before the aforementioned new technology arrived, the city would boot less than 200 cars a year.

The city attributed its success to AutoVu’s license-plate-recognition cameras. Since 2004, the city has purchased AutoVu cameras and interface programs for seven parking-enforcement vehicles, and there are plans to acquire four more in the next fiscal year. The equipment costs $75,000 a pop, but increases in boot citations have more than paid for the transition—which is impressive, because there’s only one boot-team truck operating in the city.

The infamous boot, as clamped on a wheel in Midtown.

SN&R Photo By Nicholas Miller

The boot team can photograph license plates, scan numbers and check for violations while cruising the grid. The boot truck driver drives and the passenger scans the monitor for vehicles. They even check for stolen cars with the AutoVu program. And if they discover an auto with a backlog of unpaid tickets, they boot it.

As one team member put it: “Installation is free.”

If you are unfortunate enough to have your car booted, you have to square up with the Revenue Division or, after three days, your car will be towed. If it’s towed, you have to do the aforementioned, show proof of paid fines to the police department, get a release from the cops for the tow yard and then settle up with the tower. All said and done, you could end up well over $1,000 in the hole.

This is why, according to the boot-team member, “80 percent to 90 percent” of cars that are booted end up towed and forfeited. (The city’s transportation department could not confirm this estimate at press time.) Many car owners cannot afford the fines despite the car’s value they are giving up. But even then you’re not off scot-free: The tower will still sic a collection agency on you to recoup towing expenses.

Hopefully, with new Parkeon meters, Midtown cars will be tagged with fewer and fewer tickets. This was the case back in 2005, when the city initiated a test run of Parkeon meters near Cesar Chavez Plaza downtown. Howard Chan, city division manager of parking services, said that people took too many chances with the old quarter-based meters. “If I didn’t have enough quarters, I rolled the dice. If I got a citation, it was the cost of doing business,” he said.

In September 2007, phase-one installation of Parkeon meters began in the Midtown area. Phase two is under way, also in Midtown, and phase three, downtown near City Hall, will be complete by year’s end. Eventually, some 300 new Parkeon meters, at $7,500 each, will be up and running by year’s end.

Now, parkers can pay with credit cards and have more options, and therefore the city has issued fewer tickets. And with the new meters, you can take your parking stub on the go and use it at your next destination. According to Chan, local businesses are pleased with the meter changeover.

And AutoVu cameras eventually will phase out traditional tire-chalking for enforcement officers, according to Chan. The potential of this new technology is boundless. In the past, the city conducted stings on eBay and Craigslist to bust peddlers of phony permits (Chan’s constantly amazed by those who scam for free parking; “Nobody tries to cheat on their garbage."). But who’ll need neighborhood parking permits when a license plate can electronically trigger eligibility with enforcement cameras?

Of course, there’s a flip side to that coin: With better technology, parking enforcement has more time to cover more ground. So there’s no escaping the boot. Well, there’s one loophole.

The only way to eliminate parking tickets from your record is with a DMV change of ownership. And what often happens, according to one boot-team member, is that an individual will sign over a car’s deed to a family member, which erases parking citations from the Revenue Division’s records—and keeps you off the boot-team’s hit list.

But Crystal McCarthy, after a few days of scrambling, decided to play fair. She and her roommates pooled together funds, paid the fines and got the boot off her Honda before the city towed it.

And from now on, she’ll be more careful—and maybe even bike to work. “Watch out, they’re coming for ya!” she laughed.