A car parked on McDougall Avenue on Detroit's east side was ticketed on Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022. (BridgeDetroit Photo by Malachi Barrett)

Rogue parking “scofflaws” owe the City of Detroit about $3.7 million in unpaid tickets. 

The Municipal Parking Department is seeking approval of a $1.3 million contract to replace camera systems that capture the license plates of parked cars to determine whether a ticket should be issued or if the vehicle should be towed. Keith Hutchings, the city’s parking department director, said the cameras are a useful tool in identifying offenders with multiple unpaid parking tickets. 

The “parking scofflaw program” allows the city to impound vehicles registered to a person with six or more unanswered parking violations.

There are 5,105 vehicles with such violations, according to the city, and a majority – or 54% – are registered to Detroit addresses, though vehicles registered to addresses outside the city owe more money. Detroit residents with six or more unpaid tickets owe a total of $1.7 million, while parking scofflaws with addresses outside the city owe $1.9 million.

The City of Detroit issued 154,717 parking tickets between January and August this year. Just over half had been paid, for a total of $4.3 million. Another $5.2 million in unpaid parking tickets, including the scofflaw offenders, is still owed to the city as of Aug. 31.

Last month, the City Council delayed a vote on the license plate reader contract and requested a specification report explaining the purpose of technology, how data is collected and its impact on civil liberties, as required by an surveillance oversight ordinance passed in 2021. The report, posted publicly on Sept. 27, must be made available 14 days before the council votes on any surveillance technology contracts. The contract has not yet come back before the council in October, but a decision could be made later this month. 

City officials said 25 of the 38 automatic license plate readers in use since 2012 are in need of replacement. The cameras are installed on parking enforcement vehicles, and Hutchings said they aren’t connected to license plate readers used by the Detroit Police Department. The specification report states civil rights and civil liberties are not impacted by the technology. 

“All they do is take a picture of a vehicle as we’re driving by, identify the time, location and then query the municipal parking payment system to identify if that vehicle is authorized to park in that zone,” Hutchings told a council subcommittee last month. “There’s no other information that’s acquired from that license plate reader. It simply just identifies a vehicle and sees if it’s paid to be in a space.”

Eric Williams, a managing attorney with the Detroit Justice Center, said the cameras don’t seem problematic, so long as they’re not connected to police databases or used to track movements of Detroiters. 

“Surveillance technology becomes particularly problematic when there aren’t clear limitations on what is collected, how it’s used and how it’s shared,” Williams said. “If you’re talking about data that is being collected when people aren’t engaged in anything that should normally trigger government intervention, like walking down the street, it’s personally identifiable, and there aren’t clear policies and practices in place to prevent it from being misused, that’s when surveillance becomes a problem.”

According to the specification report, the cameras take a picture of a license plate and search its number in a database of parking meter payments. If the car is not paid up, the system alerts a parking enforcement officer, who issues a ticket. Only data associated with parking violations are kept, according to the report, but the data is not shared with any other city departments.

The parking department would be “unable to enforce parking violations and scofflaw violators,” (without the new readers), according to the report. 

Under the city’s fee schedule, unpaid parking tickets increase to $65 after 30 days. Individuals with vehicles registered in another state are subject to a $95 fine, if tickets go unpaid after 30 days. Fines start at $150 for parking in handicapped spaces, which increases to $170 after a month. 

Parking tickets can be paid online or by visiting the Municipal Parking Department at 1600 W. Lafayette Boulevard. Detroiters can also contest tickets online.

The Municipal Parking Department mails a warning notice 15 days after a person receives their sixth ticket explaining that their vehicle could be immobilized or impounded. The offender then has seven days to pay their fines, enroll in a payment plan or challenge the parking tickets. If 30 days go by with no contact, the parking department sends a final notice and adds another $25 fee. 

After that, it’s fair game for the city to take action the next time the vehicle is found parked on any public street, regardless of whether they’re parked legally. This could include immobilizing the vehicle with a restraint or towing it to an impound lot owned by the parking department. 

In order to release the vehicle, the owner has 21 days to either fully pay their tickets or request an administrative hearing. The owner could permanently lose their vehicle if they do nothing to resolve the situation after 21 days, as it’s considered abandoned under law. 

Residents with vehicles registered to a Detroit address are eligible for a half-off discount on parking tickets. To receive the discount, residents must sign up with the city online. The reduced fine only applies if drivers have one unpaid ticket and if they pay the fine within five days. 

The requirement makes the ticket discount unavailable to Detroiters who avoid unaffordable auto insurance rates by registering their vehicles outside the city limits or forgo insurance altogether.

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