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When it comes to illegal parking, camera doesn't lie

By summer, eight St. Petersburg parking enforcers will have digital cameras, just the ticket for fewer arguments.

By JOUNICE L. NEALY

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 4, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- Ron Phillips isn't sure he was even in St. Petersburg on Jan. 12, the day he got a ticket for parking his rental car in a disabled space without a permit.

"I was either at the lab at Bayboro or down in Ruskin," said the retired marine biologist who lives in Tuscon, Ariz. "So I really don't know what's going on."

Phillips doesn't remember seeing the ticket on the car and didn't find out about it until he noticed a $273 charge on his Visa bill from the rental car agency. It had paid the fine, but Phillips had to pay the agency back plus a $15 surcharge.

Guilty or not, it is an argument that parking enforcement officers hear again and again.

But in St. Petersburg, officials soon will have digital photographic proof of cars straddling the line between two spaces, sitting in the fire lane or illegally parked in disabled spaces. Only the most likely argued violations will be photographed, said Phil Oropesa, city parking manager.

The city might be the first in the Tampa Bay area to use the digital cameras. Calls to a sampling of other local departments didn't turn up any others, though Tampa officials occasionally use a Polaroid-style camera for parking enforcement. By summer, eight St. Petersburg parking enforcement officials each will have a digital camera -- valued at about $200 each -- and proof of violations with just a click.

"You're able to pop up on the computer monitor a picture of the car. That seems to settle about 90 percent" of the disputes, Oropesa said.

It is not the first move the city has made to use technology to handle parking matters. In 1998, the city spent $1.56-million to buy 225 high-tech French-made parking machines. After complaints from the public, the city uprooted them and placed time limits on the spaces.

The city of Orlando, which has used the digital cameras for about three years, says the number of challenged tickets is lower. "We've got it down so we don't go to court as often," said Craig Steen, Orlando's parking enforcement supervisor.

"If someone calls to complain about a ticket and the picture shows that the violation is that clear, the violator usually ends up paying the ticket without further contesting it," Steen said. Rarely do they have to take the pictures to court, but "it does come in handy when someone questions it."

Recently, Steen used a photo to settle a dispute. A woman had parked 4 feet over the line. She saw him and argued that she had 40 minutes left on her meter.

"I said, "Ma'am, did you even look at the ticket?' " He showed her the ticket. She couldn't argue the violation.

High-tech gadgets have long been used in traffic enforcement for moving violations. At intersections in California and Virginia, cameras catch violators. A copy of the violation and the picture are sent in the mail.

But cameras now snag more than drivers with lead feet.

Clancy Systems International Inc., the Denver-based company that supplied St. Petersburg with its automated ticket system, said several cities have turned to digital cameras and software.

"Our clients don't take a picture every time they issue a ticket," said Liz Wolfson, Clancy's chief financial officer. "Sometimes they take a picture if they boot or tow. They want to ascertain if there's certain damage because you can guess that they are accused of putting the dent or the ding in the car."

Although any digital camera would suffice, private companies like Clancy also sell software that accompanies the city's ticketing system.

With moving violations, cameras seem to have been effective.

There has been a 40 percent drop in violations in communities studied by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

"When people see a picture of their own violation, it has a very sobering" effect, said Richard Retting, a senior transportation engineer with the institute.

It may not stop people from breaking parking rules, but it will reduce the time it takes to argue about it.

"There may be an explanation, but the photographs are evidence. There's a very strong connection of seeing the violation and admitting guilt."

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