Beware: Cities Hunting You Down For Reagan-Era Parking Tickets

Highly mechanized collection agencies making it easy to reap decades-old ticket revenue

Patricia deWeever got a surprising notice recently from the state of Massachusetts, saying her license would be suspended if she didn't settle parking tickets she received 25 years earlier in New Jersey.

Huh? Twenty-five year old parking tickets? The state of Massachusetts isn't kidding, and neither are New Jersey and states and cities across the country which are turning to collection agencies that specialize in tracking down people who owe them money from the days of Ronald Reagan's and George H.W. Bush's presidencies. Those tickets were written often before such records were even computerized.

In deWeever's case the whole matter was very frustrating with alleged offenses and letters sent to addresses long after she had moved to new places, and not forwarded to her. Massachusetts was getting after her for five tickets received while she lived in Jersey City, N.J., because the Commonwealth has a reciprocity arrangement with New Jersey, which means each state will help track down and prosecute moving violations and parking tickets for one another when the offenders move into the others state.

No Statute of Limitations

While many states have a statute of limitations on prosecuting felonies, there are few that have such limits on prosecuting parking tickets and moving violations. New York State is one of the few, with a statute of limitations of eight years and one day from the date of judgment.

One of the frustrating things for consumers is that details of a 20-year-old ticket are sketchy or non-existent. The fines add up to a couple of hundred dollars, and most draw the conclusion that they will pay it rather than endure the hassle of hiring a lawyer, or pursuing a Byzantine process of challenging it. In deWeever's case, she will end up paying New Jersey $129 to settle the tickets plus a nebulous $100 license reinstatement fee, so she can legally drive in New Jersey to go visit her mother. On top of that, Massachusetts is also charging her $100 to reinstate her license in that state.

deWeever is already navigating tough waters in the current economic downturn, like so many people.

"While it's a lot of money to me right now, it's not enough to engage a lawyer to fight them," says deWeever. She claims kids in her Jersey City neighborhood were known for taking tickets off people's windshields. "I have no memory of ever getting them."

Private corporations track down the old scofflaws in exchange for a cut of the ticket revenue, so it doesn't cost municipalities anything to hunt people down. One such company is Massachusetts-based Municipal Management Associates (MMA). On the firm's website, it boasts reeling in $753,440 in uncollected parking violations for Springfield, Mass., over 17 months, out of a total of $5.6 million that was on the books.

MMA combines information it has given to it by the city that hires the firm and then cross references it with data it buys from R.L. Polk, which captures vehicle registration data nationwide.

Some of the measures taken by other cities and authorities:

* The New York State Thruway will turn over any unpaid E-ZPass bill to a collection agency. Collection agencies warn they will destroy a person's credit rating if they don't pay up on bills decades old. What is the price of ignoring? An unpaid municipal fine can take 100 points off one's credit score.

* Toledo, Ohio has collected more than $500,000 in unpaid tickets going back twenty years.

* The city of New Orleans recently said it is owed $91 million in parking tickets just going back to 2004, and is now pursuing collections.

Technology has been helping traffic police nail scofflaws. Jersey City, N.J., where deWeever's parking tickets were written, has about $10 million in unpaid tickets on the books at any one time.

Traffic police can use license plate readers to scan a plate, and it will give them instant information about unpaid violations. Serial scofflaws and people who owe a lot of money can get a boot on the car.

The Associated Press earlier this year reported on a man living in Knoxville, Tenn., who received a summons on a traffic ticket he supposedly received in Sea Isle, N.J., twenty years earlier. The summer resort town has had so many out-of-town visitors that old ignored tickets is a new and steady source of revenue. Out-of-staters have long felt they could ignore tickets handed out in small vacation communities.

Relentless pursuit

MMA has a section on their website called where people can check to see if they owe on any parking tickets, and pay the fines through the company's site.

AOL Autos called MMA and talked to an employee who would only give her name as "Tina." She and another employee we spoke to said they would not give their last names for fear of retaliation from the public about their business.

"A parking ticket is a parking ticket," Tina said. "Once you owe it you're always going to owe it." The spokeswoman said the company is "relentless" in finding people, and it boasts a 93.5% success rate in recovering the amount of revenue they chase down.

The company tracked down one ticket from 1979, the spokeswoman said. A man had moved out of state for 20 plus years and went to renew his driver's license. With the violation still on his record, he was forced to pay the parking ticket before he could move on with his new license.

A previous version of this story said there are no statutes of limitations on parking tickets. New York State, however, has a limit of eight years and one day from the date of judgment.

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