The SFMTA Is Not Full of Homicide Detectives


Dear Parking Guru,

I have a challenging parking ticket question. I received a parking ticket for parking on the sidewalk in North Beach right after I moved here a few weeks ago. My car still had Texas plates and was registered in Texas at the time. However, the parking officer wrote down the wrong license plate number by one character. So technically, it isn't correct. They did get the last four of my VIN correct. I have not received a letter in the mail. Will they be able to track me down?

Texas Pete

Dear Texas,

Welcome to SF. By parking on the sidewalk, you’re well on your way to becoming a real San Franciscan, but you won’t be fully initiated until you’ve had your car towed in the middle of the day. Actually, you are savvier than most because you matched the license plate number on the ticket with your license plate and protected yourself from falling victim to the old parking ticket switcheroo, where somebody puts their ticket on a similar make and model vehicle in the hopes that the unsuspecting driver will pay it. There also is a crime ring that puts bogus tickets on peoples’ cars and has them pay by credit card to their private account. You can verify that it is an actual ticket by calling SFMTA and verifying the ticket.

The SFMTA protocol after issuing a ticket is to send a letter in the mail a couple of weeks after the citation was issued as a reminder and as a warning as to how much the penalties will be if you don’t pay it. I’ve received many an email from out of town people who never received a ticket, nor a letter, but did receive a notice from the collections agency contracted by SFMTA that they are on the hook for a couple of hundred dollars. But, as long as your address on your registration are up to date, and your mail is being forwarded to you regularly, your situation is looking good.

It’s odd that the last four numbers of your VIN are on your ticket, because that is a section rarely filled out by DPT officers. That’s an unlucky break. If that were the case, I would feel fairly confident that you were home free and would wager heavily on it. But, even with the last four of your VIN, I think the reminder letter went to the unlucky soul whose license plate is written on your ticket and that person is going to be arguing with SFMTA and the collections agency about it for the next two to three years and will probably wind up paying it just to be done with it.

We also have the variable of the reminder letter actually being sent by SFMTA, and the variable of the U.S. Postal Service properly handling that letter (if it was indeed sent) by forwarding it properly to your new address. Even with those unstable variables, if I were a betting man (and I am), I would bet that you are still in the clear. I say that based on the fact that SFMTA issues over a million and a half tickets each year, which comes out to 29,000 per week. I just don’t see them taking the time to solve this mystery and figure out which digit of the license plate number is missing from which place and then matching it to the last four numbers of a VIN. But who knows, maybe SFMTA spent three million dollars to have somebody write some software to crunch such numbers, or maybe they have a cold case division and will track you down in seven years…but I doubt it. They could match the last four of your VIN with the make and model of your car I suppose, but these are clerical folks, not homicide detectives.

It’s a double-or-nothing gamble for you, because when all the penalties and fees are tallied, your $110 ticket will be over $200. Let us know what you decide to do Pete. If you decide to gamble, let it play out and wind up owing the $200, I’ll chip in $20 to your Welcome to SF fund. Godspeed.

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