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September 9th, 2009 JAMES PITKIN | News Stories
 

It’s Not My Fault

What people will say to get out of a Portland parking ticket.

     
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They pile up each week on the desks of Multnomah County judges. Letters about dogs, diarrhea and dyslexia. Stories about autistic children and encounters with Sen. Ron Wyden.

Diagrams, photographs, snide remarks and accusations. Pleas for mercy. And excuses, excuses, excuses.

They’re the things people say to get out of a Portland parking ticket.

“Sometimes they’re rude. Sometimes they’re nice. Sometimes they’re in absolute denial about what a bad parker they are,” says Judge Cheryl Albrecht.

Court staff and judges are now working through an eight-month backlog, because, officials say, the court is short-staffed. And with all that’s currently happening with Portland parking, there’s no sign that the flood of letters will slow down.

On July 13, the City hiked its parking rates from $1.25 to $1.60 an hour and started charging on Sundays. Now the Bureau of Transportation is proposing to raise its parking fines by $10 or more, depending on the violation.

Those changes, plus new problems with the city’s much-maligned SmartMeters, mean even bigger headaches and expenses are in store for city parkers as the economy continues to flatline.

The court is the only remedy.

If you get a parking ticket, you have three options—if you even decide to pay. You can simply pay up. You can fight the ticket in court. Or you can send your money with an excuse letter called a “mail plea.”

Each of those pleas is reviewed by a pro-tem judge, who can reduce the fine, dismiss the ticket or stay with the full fine.

To get a sense of what’s angering city parkers—and to read their own excuses for breaking the rules—WW reviewed hundreds of pages of mail pleas obtained through a public-records request.

The court supplied a foot-tall stack of about 600 pleas, most dating to spring of last year, which for obscure bureaucratic reasons were the records most readily available to court staff.

The letters—all from people who wanted their fines reduced or waived—in many ways are classic Portland.

People blamed both excessive rain and excessive sun. They talked about their dogs and about being frightened of the homeless.

The down economy was a common refrain. The fact emerges that, for many in our city, a $24 ticket for an overtime meter really is a significant hardship.

But at the center of many complaints was kvetching about the Portland parking system itself—including confusing signs, tickets for sticking permits in the wrong window and the finicky SmartMeters that are the bane of downtown parkers.

The city now is dealing with a glitch that appeared when switching over software in the meters last month. Since then, reports have skyrocketed of machines eating cards or failing to pump out permits. The City has called in one of the companies that made the machines to help with the repairs, and officials say they won’t raise parking fines until the meters are fixed.

SmartMeters were at the center of dozens of mail pleas we reviewed. But we’re reprinting portions of a broad spectrum of those pleas, to give readers a cross section of what Multnomah County judges are dealing with on a weekly basis.

Some of these excuses are touching, some are justified, and some are just pathetic. But do they deserve forgiveness?

You be the judge.

VIOLATION: Unpaid meter
EXCUSE: These meters suck
“I followed the directions for payment at the SmartMeter nearest to my car. It went through the normal processing steps with my credit card, then said ‘transaction completed’ and returned my card. With no receipt. I tried a second time, with the same result…. I was under the impression that I had already paid twice, which seemed like enough times to pay for a single parking spot.” —Kasandra Griffin, Southeast Portland
JUDGE’S DECISION: Fine reduced from $24 to $6.

VIOLATION: Permit displayed in wrong window
EXCUSE: I’m a tourist
“When I read the ticket I thought the parking attendant must not have seen that I incorrectly put the tag on the driver’s side instead of the more accessible curbside, but when I read it carefully I realized that he or she DID actually notice my tag. Yet I still got a ticket! When I told my friends about this experience they were in awe. What a way to treat a first-time guest.” —Melissa Barbagelata, Attleboro Falls, Mass.
JUDGE’S DECISION: Fine reduced from $24 to $6.

VIOLATION: License tags expired
EXCUSE: DMV’s fault
“When does your car registration expire? Like you, I didn’t know the answer to this question. I never received a notice from the DMV and therefore did not know that my tags had expired.” —Dan Sperring, Lake Oswego
JUDGE’S DECISION: Fine reduced from $40 to $25.

VIOLATION: Unpaid meter
EXCUSE: Scary homeless men
“Four large and rowdy homeless men were hanging outside the restroom.... They had obviously been drinking, and one of them had a large dog on a long length of rope. I did not think it would be wise to stand five feet from these guys, get out my wallet and use a credit card to buy my parking voucher.” —Blaine Rowland, Oregon City
JUDGE’S DECISION: Fine reduced from $24 to $18.

VIOLATION: No handicap permit
EXCUSE: Distracted by autistic child
“I have a legal handicap permit and took an autistic child to the zoo concert.... I don’t know if I forgot to hang it up due to the distraction of the child or if it was accidentally knocked down.” —Margi Lehman, Beaverton
JUDGE’S DECISION: Case dismissed; no fine.

VIOLATION: Parked in loading zone
EXCUSE: Dyslexia
“If the parking space was meant just to be a loading zone, why did the city also have a sign on the same pole allowing multi-hour parking[?]...I am sorry my brain misread the signs and do still have derivative dyslexia but my passenger was also fooled.” [i]—Felix Loeb, Southwest Portland
JUDGE’S DECISION: Full $15 fine.

VIOLATION: Parked at fire hydrant
EXCUSE: Wisdom teeth
“I had just had my wisdom teeth pulled and was in immense pain.... If you have ever had a wisdom tooth pulled, then I hope you can identify with the level of pain I was suffering. My face was swollen up to my eyes on both sides, and no amount of medication could even put a dent in my pain. Then to add fuel to the fire I received this ticket.” —Desiree Kiser, Gresham
JUDGE’S DECISION: Full $70 fine.

VIOLATION: Permit displayed in wrong window
EXCUSE: I’m an asshole
“I want to express my sincere appreciation for giving me this opportunity to donate my hard-earned money to the fair city of Portland. While I pay a good share of property and income taxes already, it’s always a pleasure to give a little more. With gas prices skyrocketing, I say, ‘Why not reach deeper down into those pockets and give ‘til you can’t give no more.’” —Brian Izenson, Southeast Portland
JUDGE’S DECISION: Fine reduced from $24 to $12.

VIOLATION: Parking over the line
EXCUSE: I’m a good person
“I am so conscious of obeying the laws, being a courteous driver, and following the rules, that it is completely frustrating to try to do all that and still feel that someone is watching and waiting for you to make a mistake.... We ride MAX whenever possible, but the lot near our home was completely full, or I would have avoided all this dismay and expense.” —Judi Mittelstaedt, Southwest Portland
JUDGE’S DECISION: Full $24 fine.

VIOLATION: No-parking zone
EXCUSE: Drinking
“I ended up having more than one drink and felt I should not drive my car and believe it is important not to drink and drive. So I stayed at my friend’s apartment.... By the time I got to my car in the morning around 9 a.m., it was gone and I realized I had it parked in a no-parking zone.” —Jennifer DeVan, Northeast Portland
JUDGE’S DECISION: Fine reduced from $70 to $35.

VIOLATION: Expired license tags
EXCUSE: Raining
“I actually had already renewed them but had not put them on because the day I got them it was pouring down rain. And the days that followed that it rained, too. And then I simply forgot but they were in my glove compartment.”
—Lynne Terry, North Portland

JUDGE’S DECISION: Fine reduced from $40 to $25.

VIOLATION: No handicap permit
EXCUSE: Sunny
“It was very hot and sunny so perhaps the officer was blinded by glare off windshield.” —Sally Gordy, Eugene
JUDGE’S DECISION: Case dismissed; no fine.

VIOLATION: Parked in a loading zone
EXCUSE:Dogs plus rain
“I was parked in a loading zone by mistake. It was raining and I was in a hurry to get to my studio with my dogs.” —Mimi Tarro, Southwest Portland
JUDGE’S DECISION: Full $60 fine.

VIOLATION: Overtime meter
EXCUSE: Poverty
“I haven’t been able to find a job...and am living on food stamps and credit cards. The $24 for this fine will have a serious impact on my finances and my life. I’m trying furiously to get out of this ‘survival mode’ I seem to be stuck in, but have yet to land the job that will help me have enough money to pay the bills. (I did have an interview at New Seasons last week, so maybe there is a ray of hope coming through soon!)” —Christine Wiecek, Southeast Portland.
JUDGE’S DECISION: Fine reduced from $24 to $10.

VIOLATION: Overtime meter
EXCUSE: Diarrhea
“I paid the parking permit on that day. However, I have been suffering from sudden intensive bowel syndrome. It kept me staying longer than I expected.” —Charngmann Song of Southweast Portland
JUDGE’S DECISION: Fine reduced from $24 to $12.

VIOLATION: No handicap permit
EXCUSE: Sister died
“A friend gave me a ride to the funeral office for me to sign papers for the burial of my sister.... I took my handicap tag with me in case I needed it. I forgot to put it back up on the rearview mirror as I parked June 11 at Wal-Mart to buy thank-you cards.” —Sally Braich from Southeast Portland
JUDGE’S DECISION: Case dismissed; no fine.

VIOLATION: Overtime meter
EXCUSE: Sen. Ron Wyden
“I’d been asked to attend a roundtable discussion being hosted by Senator Ron Wyden for military veterans. During the discussion it came up that I had returned from Afghanistan last summer with the Oregon National Guard, and one of the senator’s aides indicated that she wanted to discuss our deployment further afterwards.... I stepped outside just a few minutes after my parking sticker had expired.” —Ruben Lach Litwer, Northeast Portland
JUDGE’S DECISION: Fine reduced from $24 to $12.

VIOLATION: Vehicle for sale on street
EXCUSE: Ignorance
“I am asking the fine be returned to me for one simple reason...ignorance. I know ignorance is not a good defense, nor is it bliss, but I see vehicles for sale parked all over the city with no ticketing, and I was not aware it was against the law.” —Karl Kuminski, North Portland
JUDGE’S DECISION: Fine reduced from $35 to $10.

VIOLATION: After-hours parking
EXCUSE: Love
“Friday June 20 was a beautiful evening. After dinner, my sweetheart and I, along with dozens of other Portlanders, took a walk in the Washington Park Rose Garden. As we were not watching the clock, imagine our disappointment to find a $70 ticket when we returned to our car at 10:25 p.m. Although I do not dispute that I was parked past 10:00 p.m., this fine seems excessive in that the ticket was issued just moments past the posted time. Thank you for your consideration.”
—John Sohl, Northwest Portland
JUDGE’S DECISION: Fine reduced from $70 to $35.

Fun Facts About Parking In Porland

• How much money was generated from parking meters last year?
$14 million

• How much extra does the city expect to make this year after it raised parking rates in July and started charging on Sundays?
$5.8 million

• About how much does each parking meter bring in per day?
42

• How much did each SmartMeter cost?
6,100

• About how much does the City spend each year fixing its SmartMeters?
460,000

• How many parking tickets did the City write last year?
229,974

• How much money was generated from Portland parking fines last year?
$8.4 million
(the City gets 45 percent, the County gets 45 percent and the state court system gets 10 percent)

• How much does the City spend each year on parking enforcement?
$4 million

• How does Portland’s $24 fine for an overtime-parking ticket stack up against other cities?
Denver: $25
Sacramento: $35
Seattle: $38
San Diego: $40
San Francisco: $50

• How much does Portland Bureau of Transportation Director Susan Keil make in a year?
$171,142

• How much does a rookie parking enforcement officer make in a year?
$47,464 $37,762

 
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