The pieces just didn’t add up for Douglas Reed and his wife, Linda Fries, of Lowell. Why would a parking enforcement officer drive an unmarked car? Why hadn’t she handed Doug the ticket, instead of sending it by mail? Had he really deserved one for what he did?
Could it all be a scam?
“Yesterday my husband received a bill for $100 — with a $5 late fee — for a parking ticket issued in November while he was working in Everett. This bill came as a total surprise,” Fries wrote to me late last month. “This just seems so fishy. Help.”
The Case of the Questionable Ticket — I guess I’ll call it that — centers on the events of Nov. 26. Reed, who works in construction, had driven to a work site in Everett, but couldn’t find a parking space on the street. So he pulled his truck in front of a fire hydrant and waited, with the engine running, for a space to open.
Soon an Everett parking enforcement officer, driving an unmarked car, arrived on the street and got out of her car to tell Reed he couldn’t park in front of the hydrant. According to Reed, he apologized and immediately drove away. Eventually, he found parking on another street.
That was the last Reed saw of the parking officer. Nevertheless, two months later, a ticket arrived in the mail for parking in front of a fire hydrant, with a $100 fine.
“She did not give him a ticket, nor did she tell him that he would be ticketed,” Fries wrote. “Is it illegal to be parked ‘live’ in front of a hydrant? Does a meter maid have to inform a person if a ticket will be issued?”
But what really bothered Fries and her husband was not knowing whether the ticket was real. Not wanting to get into further trouble, Reed stuffed the ticket and a check into an envelope and mailed it back that day. All he knew was that someone, somewhere, had gotten his money.
For legal advice, I turned to one of my best sources, lawyer and police instructor John Sofis Scheft, whose consulting business, Law Enforcement Dimensions, is based in Arlington.
My first question: Isn’t there a difference between leaving your car unattended in front of a fire hydrant and remaining in the driver’s seat, with your engine running, as Reed did?
Sofis Scheft’s answer: In the eyes of the law, they are one and the same.
“It is illegal to be parked live in front of a hydrant,” he told me, “although it would have been nice of the meter attendant to let him move.”
Though parking rules vary in every community, the basic procedures for issuing parking tickets are really a matter of state law, specifically, Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 90, Section 20A. The statute does not require a parking enforcement officer to warn motorist that they are being ticketed. Nor does it require parking officers to drive marked vehicles, or to even wear uniforms.
You know how when you get a parking ticket in person, the officer always seems to put it on your windshield, even when they could just hand it to you?
Turns out, they have to do that.
“Said notice must be made in triplicate,” reads Section 20A, “and one copy shall be affixed securely to the motor vehicle.”
In rare cases, exceptions are allowed. If a motorist drives away before a ticket can be affixed, or if the parking officer were to feel threatened by the motorist (certainly plausible), state law allows a ticket to be mailed to the vehicle owner within five days of the offense. If the violator has out-of-state registration plates, the parking authority has 10 days in which to mail it.
Susan Clippinger, director of Cambridge’s Traffic, Parking and Transportation Department, said parking enforcement officers do need to have a good reason for mailing one, though.
“We have an internal process where the mail-out tickets are reviewed to make sure that the manager agrees it is appropriate,” she told me. “If considered not appropriate, the ticket is not mailed out and [is] voided in the system.”
So was Reed’s ticket legit, or not? Even after learning all this, I still didn’t know, so I went right to Everett City Hall.
I wasn’t allowed to speak directly with Joanne Gregory, Everett’s parking clerk. Instead the city solicitor, Colleen Mejia, fielded my questions as a go-between.
As a result, there was some confusion at first — I was told, for instance, that Everett did not mail parking tickets to anyone.
But once Fries provided me with her husband’s registration plate number, Mejia was able to confirm that a ticket was issued to him for $100, the state fine for parking in front of a hydrant.
Mejia couldn’t tell me why the parking enforcement officer in Reed’s case was driving an unmarked car, as it is standard procedure for Everett’s staff to drive in city vehicles. Nor did she say why Reed didn’t get a ticket in the mail within a week or so after his offense, as state law requires.
But she did offer a ray of hope for Reed.
State law allows you to appeal a parking ticket within 21 days of its issuance. (Indeed, every parking ticket says so.) But if you miss that window of opportunity, as Reed did, you can still try to appeal the ticket, Mejia said.
“In speaking further to the parking clerk, when a person calls asking for a hearing after receiving a late notice, it is not uncommon that even though 21 days has passed, she will grant an appeal hearing,” Mejia e-mailed me. “Everett City Hall is open late two nights per week. In addition, if the person absolutely cannot make a hearing in person, there are occasions that she will allow the appellant to submit an appeal in writing via e-mail or regular mail.”
I thought that would be great news for Fries and Reed, but the couple said they are finished with their ticket caper, and are moving on.
“The gas, time, and money wasted due to the parking restrictions in and around Boston — now that’s a crime,” Fries e-mailed me.
A valid point, perhaps, but that’s a discussion for another day.