How city parking penalties escalate
By Gil Smart, Staff Writer firstname.lastname@example.org
If the meter runs out, you're parked next to a fire hydrant or leave your car on the street when the street sweepers come through -- expect a ticket.
The fine depends on how "severe" the infraction -- and how long you take to pay it.
Initial fines range from $10 for an expired parking meter or parking in a loading zone to $200 for parking illegally in a handicapped zone or blocking an emergency driveway, like at a fire station. Parked on the street during a snow emergency? That'll cost you $30. Parked less than 15 feet from a hydrant? You'll pony up $75 -- so long as you pay your fine within 15 days.
If you don't, you'll get a warning notice -- and another $10 will be tacked on to your fine.
If you still don't pay the fine, your case winds up with a local magisterial district judge.
"Once or twice a week we have 'parking hearings' with lists of 20 to 30 people," said Lancaster District Judge Bruce Roth. Among those summoned, he said, about half to two-thirds show up.
A city police officer shows up, too. "This is the chance for [the person who got the ticket] to say the meter was broken or a loved one was in the hospital with a heart attack," Roth said. Most cases are resolved, with a ticket being dismissed or the fine paid.
Those who fail to show up face even more fees. "They're found guilty and have to pay the full amount," Roth said. They get a letter directing them to pay. If they ignore it, they get a warning letter, stating that if the fine remains unpaid by a certain date -- a warrant will be issued for their arrest.
Then there's the boot. Scofflaws who ignore their initial ticket, pay no heed to the subsequent warning letter and don't respond to a summons from a magisterial district judge might saunter out one morning to find the metallic device affixed to a wheel, immobilizing their vehicle.
According to city code, anyone with one or more unsettled parking violations could get booted. To have the boot removed, not only does a vehicle owner have to pay the outstanding fines -- he or she also has to come up with an additional $50 "boot fee."
Ultimately, if a person still fails to respond, a computerized system in the district judge's office spits out a warrant -- and the constables pick up the offender and haul him or her into the courtroom.
"First I say, 'Why didn't you pay?' " Roth said. Sometimes there's a legitimate reason, and the case gets dismissed. Roth cited a man who had recently lost an arm in an industrial accident. "I dismissed his case; he obviously wasn't going to be able to pay," Roth said.
However, he cautioned merely being "light on cash is not a reason not to pay."
People who get to this point can and do go to jail.
Last June, a Lancaster Newspapers story about a local bookstore owner who went to jail after failing to pay $2,000 in fines generated comment and condemnation from citizens and even county officials, who questioned the wisdom of using up valuable space in the chronically overcrowded Lancaster County prison on parking scofflaws.
Roth said such cases are rare. "Maybe 1 percent or less of all the cases," he said. But without the ultimate threat of incarceration, "nobody would ever pay."
Lancaster defense attorney Richard McDonald disagrees. Throw people in jail for failing to pay parking fines and "Lancaster County Prison becomes a debtor's prison," he said.
"People should never be taken into custody for parking tickets in a city that gives them out so freely and a community with so many restrictions. Overstaying a meter, failing to move your car during street cleaning, spending more than two hours in a permit zone don't qualify as crime in my mind and will never justify incarceration.
"All this in a city where you buy 10 minutes for a quarter. It's unfair and needs reconsidered to be handled in a manner that doesn't cause people to be cuffed up and have to empty their bank accounts."n