License plate scanners help find those with unpaid parking tickets
Catching parking scofflaws in San Francisco has become easier with the help of high-tech cameras that scan license plates in search of cars saddled with unpaid citations.
A city parking crew operating the new system can almost instantaneously find cars with at least five outstanding tickets. A two-person team roams city streets with two small cameras mounted atop their unmarked vehicle. The cameras can scan 250 or more plates an hour.
And when a match is made, the crew attaches a yellow metal boot to the front wheel, removing it only after the tickets are paid.
The city's Department of Parking and Traffic is giving the program a 90-day test run set to end in February. If it's successful, the program will be expanded. The system is also used to find stolen vehicles.
In San Francisco, a city notorious for its shortage of on-street parking, officials issue nearly 2 million tickets worth $85 million each year, a meaningful chunk of the city's more than $5 billion budget. About 8,000 drivers have accrued five or more tickets and are pegged as scofflaws.
Michelle McKniff was one of them. She found her car booted last week after eating brunch in San Francisco's Polk Gulch neighborhood.
"I almost cried,'' said the 28-year-old Oakland resident who works in San Francisco. "I just stood there and thought, 'Oh my God.' I couldn't believe it.''
She took a cab to the Department of Parking and Traffic's customer service center at 10th and Howard streets. There, she paid $635 to settle eight tickets for such violations as parking in an area during street-cleaning hours and improperly curbing her wheel. She also had to cover the $75 boot-removal fee. Her payment barely made a dent in the $6.1 million pile of outstanding fines on the city's books.
"I'm not saying I'm not at fault. It's just really hard to find parking in some neighborhoods,'' said McKniff, who sometimes works late at her internship in the Mission District and feels safer driving home than taking public transit after dark.
The city puts metal boots on almost 3,800 vehicles a year. Officials hope to increase that by at least 9 percent if the license plate-scanning program is fully implemented.
On one recent afternoon, parking control officers Bill Self and Robert Louie, both 11-year department veterans who work the scofflaw squad, rolled through the streets in their camera-equipped vehicle. When they scanned the plate of a car with more than five unpaid tickets, an electronic ping sounded and a photo of the license plate appeared on a dashboard computer screen.
A different alert sounds when a stolen car is identified.
Each time the crew got a hit, they called in the license plate number to a dispatcher, who checked city and state records to verify the unpaid tickets or stolen-car status.
"The last thing we want to do is boot a car that shouldn't be,'' said James Lee, assistant director of enforcement for the Department of Parking and Traffic.
On Washington Street in Pacific Heights, three cars were found on the scofflaw list, including a Porsche sports car.
"Seven outstandings, $675,'' the dispatcher confirmed over the radio as the Porsche owner showed up.
"Your car has to be immobilized,'' Self told the man. "You have seven outstanding tickets.''
The man whipped out his wallet and tried unsuccessfully to pay on the spot. He'd have to pay his boot-removal fee in person at the South of Market customer service center.
The boots are supposed to be removed within two hours after the fines are paid. At one point in their shift, Louie and Self removed a boot from a Mazda and turned around and clamped it onto a Mercedes -- 13 citations, $730 in fines -- parked right behind it.
San Francisco isn't the first city to use the license-plate scanning technology. Oakland uses it to find stolen vehicles. San Francisco just added the stolen car data to its system last week.
The system isn't perfect. The cameras don't capture all license plates because some are tilted at the wrong angle or too dirty to read.
The cost of software and equipment for one of the specially outfitted Department of Parking and Traffic vehicles is about $92,000, Lee said.
The company that holds the ticket-processing contract with the city, ACS Inc., is paying for the test phase, according to Maggie Lynch, spokeswoman for the Municipal Transportation Agency, which runs the Department of Parking and Traffic.
When Louie started out as a parking control officer in 1995, he relied on printed handouts -- sometimes 20 pages long -- that listed thousands of vehicles with unpaid tickets. In recent years, the data were stored on the handheld devices parking control officers punch in license plate numbers every time they write a ticket.
"That still takes time,'' Self said. "This new technology will make our jobs a lot easier.''