Santa Monica, which collects nearly $5 million annually from strict enforcement of metered parking--including some 24-hour, seven-days-a-week meters in parts of the city--is giving money back to some motorists because the city may have been too aggressive in collecting overdue parking tickets.
About $110,000 was refunded to nearly 3,000 motorists and an additional 26,000 parking tickets were dismissed.
Charles M. Dennis, the city's finance director, said that about 29,000 letters were sent out last fall to delinquent violators, some as long as two years overdue, telling them to pay up or a warrant for their arrest could be issued.
But soon after the letters went out by computer from a private contractor, Police Sgt. Russ Martin, who had recently become supervisor of the department's parking enforcement division, began receiving complaints that arresting people for outstanding parking tickets is against city policy.
Martin said those complaints brought to light a larger problem: Many of the people receiving the letters were not the owners of the vehicles described in the letters.
Martin discovered the errors through a check with the Department of Motor Vehicles. He said the errors may have occurred by officers misreading license plate numbers on the vehicles or on the citations when they were entered into the computers.
"When the DMV check indicates that a particular license number belongs to a Chevrolet and the guy owns a Ford, it's obviously a mistake," Martin said.
Martin and his superiors brought the matter to the attention of city officials, who agreed that the collection letters were in error. Dennis explained that the threat of arrest in the letters was taken directly from language that formerly appeared on Santa Monica parking tickets but was recently removed to reflect the city's policy against such action.
It is not known how many of the 26,000 citations were mismatches. However, because of the large number of errors and the possibility that many more existed, city officials decided to dismiss all the cases of people who received the strongly worded letter.
In addition, the city refunded about $110,000 to nearly 3,000 motorists who already had paid overdue fines.
"I felt that even if it had been just a few people who received the letter, it was inappropriate because of the language and the mismatches," Martin said.
Dennis said it has taken until recently to clear the tickets through the courts and to mail refunds to those motorists who paid their fines after receiving the threatening letters.
Martin said the problem has been resolved by reprogramming the computer software so that when DMV checks are made on overdue tickets and the license plate numbers and the vehicle description do not match, the computer separates thoses cases.
Although arrest is not likely for delinquent parking violators, Martin said drivers who do not pay their tickets could still have their annual vehicle registration held up by the DMV or have their vehicles immobilized by the so-called Denver Boot or impounded by police.