Who in Burlington hasn’t returned to their car to find a little orange envelope stuffed with a parking ticket for $12, $50 or even $100?
And who, in that steaming-mad moment, hasn’t thought, This is BS. I’m gonna write a strongly worded letter to the city and get this cleared?
But who actually takes the time to write that letter? Turns out, more than a thousand do every year — and many of them successfully get their fines reduced or voided altogether.
According to Burlington officials, the city issued roughly 59,000 parking tickets from July 2009 through June 2010 — an average of 161 a day. Its fines garnered a total of $1.2 million. Of tickets issued, 5545 fines were voided or converted to warnings by the police department for being questionable or imposed in error. Another 1600 were appealed in writing to the city attorney’s office, per the instructions on the back of the ticket envelopes.
Boxes full of letters pleading for mercy can be found in the basement of Burlington city hall. Some are bullet-pointed defenses on official letterhead, while others are chicken scratches on Post-it notes. Many are accompanied by diagrams, color photographs, leases, and other “evidence” used to argue for leniency. Often the letters reveal intimate details about Vermonters in personal and financial turmoil.
While the city doesn’t track how many appeals result in a fine adjustment, a review of two months’ worth of records suggests that perhaps as many as a third did in September and October. Extrapolated to a full year, that suggests $158,000 in fines were issued but later expunged last fiscal year, estimates Burlington parking-enforcement manager John King.
What determines whether a ticket gets expunged?
Burlington’s parking ordinance lays out general rules, such as no parking on lawns and sidewalks and no parking in residential zones without a sticker. But it doesn’t detail every “mitigating circumstance” that will get a fine erased. Since 1991, the job of judging and ruling on appeals has fallen to a single person in the city attorney’s office: paralegal Lisa Jones.
Jones won’t reveal much to Seven Days about how she decides who pays and who doesn’t, or how she ensures her discretion is applied fairly. She insists that appeals are weighed on a “case-by-case basis” and that she’s guided by questions such as Could that person have avoided parking where he or she did? and Was there some kind of emergency?
Jones does disclose that detailed letters get a closer look. “The level of detail helps, because you understand the situation more,” she explains.
Reading the letters, it’s hard not to see inconsistencies that come from leaving the matter to official discretion. Often parking offenders with similar — even nearly identical — stories get the opposite treatment from the city on their appeals.
Forinstance, a Champlain College student who appealed a ticket for parking on North Prospect Street, a residents-only street last August had to pay the full $50 fine. Yet four other letter writers who did the same thing on the same street got their tickets voided in September and October.
What follow are excerpts from letters that worked, and ones that didn’t, over the past two months. We’ve sorted them into typically recurring categories. For privacy reasons, we have not used the ticket recipients’ names.
I Can’t Afford It!
Think crying poor will get your parking sins forgiven? Maybe, but it could depend on how desperate you appear.
One student who was ticketed $100 in late September for ignoring construction signs successfully argued the fine was just too steep. The letter read, “As a college student, I make $400 a month working a job that I don’t have time for. My rent is $550 and I don’t have a lot of cushion in savings.”
Jones’ reply: “Given your financial situation, I will reduce the fine to $45 as a warning.”
Another student who claimed more vaguely that a $50 ticket was “largely outside my budget” did not persuade Jones. That student wrote, “The evening I parked on the street of Morse Place was due to the circumstance that Petra Cliffs’ parking lot was full, requiring me to find nearby parking. Because of the night time, I did not see and was unaware of signs posted that indicated restricted parking.”
Jones’ reply: denied. “The area in which you parked is posted ‘no parking.’ When you park on the street, it is your responsibility to check for signs.”
Didn’t You See My Guest Pass?
Parking in a residents-only zone without a sticker gets a $50 fine. Visitors can get a “guest pass” from residents. They just need to remember to put that pass on their dashboard.
A Burlington woman ticketed for not properly displaying her guest pass wrote, “On the night of October 13, 2010, I placed my guest pass on the passenger seat. By midnight, I was too tired to drive home and decided to stay the night ... My front window was fogged up and, because my pass was on the passenger seat and not on the dashboard, the pass must have been overlooked by the parking enforcement official.”
Jones’ reply: denied. “In order for a guest pass to be valid it must be properly displayed: it must be displayed at all times without obstruction on the lower left-hand corner of the front window of your vehicle,” she wrote. “It’s not the officer’s job to search for the pass elsewhere. It’s your responsibility to have it properly displayed.”
A Burlington man using a similar excuse had better luck. He included a photocopy of his guest pass and wrote, “I was helping friends move in ... The parking pass was in the car. It either got knocked or blew onto the floor of my car, where it must have been missed.”
Jones’ reply: “I will void this ticket. Remember, it is your responsibility to make sure the guest pass is properly displayed and unobstructed at all times.”
No Parking on Sidewalks
Blocking a sidewalk or greenbelt will earn you a $50 fine. But whether you get that fine reduced may depend on why you were blocking it.
A St. Michael’s College student was ticketed for blocking a sidewalk on Hungerford Terrace while jump-starting his buddy’s Suburban. He wrote, “The engine wouldn’t turn over, so, naturally, I pulled up beside his car to try to jump-start it. When that failed, I shut off my car and we both went inside to find his owner’s manual. I was looking at the manual for five or 10 minutes before I headed back outside to see the parking enforcement woman getting back in her car and driving off ... Considering I am an unemployed college student, this heavy $50 fine for a first-time violation has a significant impact on my financial situation.”
Jones’ reply: denied. “It is prohibited by state law and city ordinance to park on a sidewalk. You should not have left the car on the sidewalk when you went into your friend’s apartment.”
A University of Vermont student ticketed for blocking the sidewalk had success with a more apologetic letter. He wrote, “I truely [sic] did not mean to block the pathway and I apologize. I am a senior at UVM, full time, and I also support myself by delivering pizzas for Leonardo’s downtown. I am telling you this hopefully to gain your sympathies. $50 is a lot of money for me, especially at this time of year, books and studio art supplies. Hopefully the fine can be reduced or eliminated entirely. Once again, sorry for the bad parking job.”
Jones’ reply: “No part of your vehicle is allowed on the sidewalk, including overhanging it. However, I will reduce the fine to $30.”
It Wasn’t Me
What should you do when you get a letter demanding payment for an overdue ticket you never received? Tell the city it wasn’t you. More than one driver got a ticket expunged by theorizing that someone else — an ex, the babysitter, a son or daughter — had the car when it was ticketed.
A Milton woman took a creative approach, concocting elaborate what-if scenarios in an attempt to explain why her car was ticketed on Isham Street at 11:30 p.m. in late October. She wrote, “I am in bed every night at 10 and I don’t know where Isham Street is ... I don’t let anyone drive my car except my husband, and he is with me in bed at 10. Then my thoughts went to my 14-year-old son, but he has never been behind the wheel of a car and does not know how to drive. And he would have to get out of the house and back the van back into the garage and get inside all without the dog barking. That can’t happen, my dog would not let it. And he would have no reason to be on Isham Street, or any other street, for that matter. So then I thought that someone had broken into my garage, then broken into the house, then found my purse to get my keys, then take [sic] my van out, bring it back and back it into the garage like I had it and put my keys back in my purse, all without the dog barking. No, that probably didn’t happen, either... My next thought is that maybe in the dark at 11:30 at night the officer may have gotten the license number one letter or number off ... I am at a loss here.”
Jones’ reply: “Based on your representation that your car was not in Burlington on the night the ticket was issued, I am voiding it. It is possible the officer wrote down the incorrect license plate number when issuing the ticket.”
Blame It on the Kid
The trials of parenthood can be a convenient excuse for all kinds of things — including illegal parking.
On September 13, a South Burlington mom ticketed for letting her meter expire wrote, “I was at the YMCA to drop off my child and had paid the parking. However, being new to school, my toddler (2 1/2 years old) and being first time away from mom did not allow me to leave. So my paid time lapsed at about 9:50 and I got ticketed at 9:57 ... I will appreciate if you waive my ticket. I am a stay-at-home mom with a limited budget and will appreciate your waiver.”
Jones’ reply: “I will void this ticket as a warning. However, please understand that it is your responsibility to make sure there is enough time on the meter: that may mean putting extra time on the meter to cover unforeseen circumstances.”
A hopeful, would-be mother from Killington whose husband is deployed in Afghanistan found less sympathy when she was ticketed $12 for her meter going over by three minutes. She wrote, “I was in a meeting with our attorney, signing some papers for us to proceed using a Gestational Carrier to achieve a pregnancy. The contract needed to have two witnesses and unfortunately the first witness signed in the wrong place, prompting us to have to have it reprinted and properly signed.”
Jones’ reply: denied. “I’m sorry your meeting lasted longer than you expected, but those circumstances do not warrant dismissal of the ticket.”