Fine indignation: revolt of the street parkers | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

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Fine indignation: revolt of the street parkers

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For Alan Melzer the final straw was the $20 ticket he got for parking at an expired meter near Michigan Avenue. Actually, he says, the meter had not expired--it was broken. So he shouldn't have been ticketed.

"I'm a victim, and there have to be others like me out there," says Melzer, who lives on the near northwest side. "They're writing tickets like crazy, and half the time they don't know what they're doing."

City officials don't see things exactly that way. As they view it, Mayor Daley, backed by a sophisticated array of space-age computer technology, has declared war on parking-ticket scofflaws. And it's a war he's determined to win.

"We've honed the system to a fine art; scofflaws just aren't going to get away," says John Holden, spokesman for the city's Department of Revenue. "It's definitely not like it used to be, where you probably figured you could ignore your tickets or just throw them away."

Daley's new parking enforcement program, enacted last September, has drastically reduced the time violators have to pay off their tickets. "Previously, you were given the option of going to court six to eight weeks after you were ticketed," says Holden. "If you missed that date you were sent a reminder in another four to six months. All together you had a year to think about paying."

Nowadays city-operated computers notify alleged offenders within two weeks that they have another three weeks to either pay up or request a hearing. If they don't respond, the computer sends a second notice explaining that within a month the fine will double. If they choose to contest the ticket, a hearing is held before a special parking-ticket judge. After five unpaid or uncontested tickets, they are eligible for the boot.

"That's our big weapon," says Holden. "If you're booted, you have to immediately pay off every ticket you owe as well as a $60 booting fee. If you leave your booted car in the same place for more than 24 hours, it's towed to a city auto pound. Then you're charged $100 for the towing and $5 a day for storage. If the car goes unclaimed for more than 60 days, it's sold for scrap or auctioned."

The city now employs 13 boot crews (compared to 4 or 5 last year), who scour the streets looking for boot-eligible cars (there are 168,000 of them out there, says Holden). This year the city expects to boot 30,000 cars, write four million tickets, and collect nearly $50 million in fines--up from $42 million last year and $30 million in 1989.

But some critics say the new system isn't fair. Lawyer Corey Berman, for one, recently filed a class-action suit against the city. The suit stems from a ticket Berman received for parking on Wacker Drive in a spot not designated as a no-parking zone.

"There is a law on the books that prohibits parking in the Loop," says Berman. "But there are parts of the Loop in which no-parking signs are posted. That would lead someone to conclude that they can park in any spot where there is no such sign."

Berman's suit also says city law unconstitutionally limits the kinds of arguments a motorist can use in court against paying a ticket. "You can, for instance, get out of paying a ticket if you can prove that the parking meter was broken," says Berman. "But there's no provision that enables you to say you had to double-park to take a sick person to the hospital."

Holden says he cannot comment on the specifics of Berman's suit because it is pending. But he will say that "the constitutionality of parking tickets has been litigated many times and, generally speaking, the municipalities have been upheld."

That may be because the courts take a different view of parking disputes than of other kinds of cases, where the defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty. A parking ticket is treated like undeniable evidence of guilt. The burden of proof falls on anyone who professes innocence.

"Come on, if you get a ticket you probably deserved it," says Holden. "You were probably in a hurry and said, "Oh, I'll just double-park."'

Don't tell Melzer that; he contends he has received at least five unwarranted tickets. On June 13, for instance, Melzer says he parked his car at 1151 S. Jefferson, fed the meter two quarters (good for an hour), and then left for lunch. Forty-five minutes later he returned to find the meter expired and his car ticketed.

"Obviously the meter was defective," says Melzer. "I should have had 15 more minutes on that meter."

A few weeks later, on July 10, he says he was wrongly ticketed again. This time he was parked on Congress Plaza Drive, the curved lane that loops halfway around the intersection of Congress and Michigan.

"I knew the meter was broken because someone had put a sign on it that said so," says Melzer. "I put a quarter in the meter just to be certain, and sure enough, the flag remained up. Just to make sure that there could be no mistakes, I put a sticker on the meter--I always carry stickers, you never know when you might need them--that said the meter was broken."

When he returned, Melzer discovered his car had been ticketed. "Not only that, but the ticket was improperly written," says Melzer. "The cop didn't write the meter number on it. I don't think I'm nitpicking. If we're supposed to follow the rules, they should too."

There's no rule against giving a ticket at a broken meter, says Holden, but contesting the ticket by claiming the meter was broken usually gets you off the hook if it's true. The city keeps a record of meter status based on regular surveys.

The next day Melzer parked his car in the same spot and fed the meter three quarters, but the meter only registered 30 minutes. So Melzer slapped two stickers on the meter, saying it was broken. "I assumed there was no way in the world anyone could make a mistake and give me a ticket," says Melzer, "unless they were illiterate or blind, which I don't think most cops are."

But you guessed it: he was ticketed. "This time I was royally pissed," says Melzer. "These cops don't read, they just write. Obviously, they have been told to crank out the tickets. . . . Meanwhile, I'm stuck with the ticket, which, if I'm like 99 percent of all the schmucks in the world, I would pay. Even though I'm innocent!"

But Melzer decided he wasn't going to be an ordinary schmuck; he was going to fight the ticket. So he took the first step.

"First, I had to find out how many back tickets I had. I figured that if I mounted a vigorous defense--with letters to various newspapers, TV stations, and reporters--the city would look into my files and use those past tickets to try and discredit me."

He went to Room 107 in City Hall, the central office of the Bureau of Parking Enforcement. "It's unbelievable in there," says Melzer. "You've got all these guys waiting in line, complaining about their tickets. One guy started screaming at the clerk, 'You're full of shit!' I tell you, one of these days there's gonna be a fight down there."

A computer search revealed that Melzer had 15 unpaid tickets on two different license plates. "OK, I'm no angel, but I never said I had no blemishes," Melzer acknowledges. "What pisses me off is that at least two of those tickets should never have been issued. They were written on two consecutive July fourths, and the law says that you can't be ticketed on a legal holiday." Actually, says Holden, you can be ticketed on holidays for some violations--parking in a bus stop or in front of a hydrant, for example. Parking meters aren't enforced on the Fourth of July or certain other holidays.

"I haven't had the time yet, but I plan to go through all of those tickets," says Melzer. "I hope I find that I have paid a few of them because that would show that the city is run by a bigger bunch of jag-offs than I thought."

Melzer can challenge each and every one of those tickets, but it will take time and money. City law prohibits consolidating the tickets at a single hearing; each offense must be heard separately. "Consolidation might be too convenient for me," says Melzer. "God forbid they should allow that." He'd also have to pay a $150 court filing fee to appeal any of the rulings.

"Maybe Daley thinks people are going to measure his effectiveness by the number of tickets written during his reign," says Melzer. "They think it's good government to write all of these tickets. But I think it's a scam. I'm rooting for [Berman]. I hope he wins his case and makes them pay big."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Loren Santow.

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