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Ticketbuster: Prince George's County hopes to avoid mistaken ID

Wednesday - 5/21/2014, 4:30am  ET

LARGO, Md. -- As WTOP Ticketbuster has been reporting on problems in the parking ticket system in the District of Columbia, one neighbor has been paying close attention.

Prince George's County parking officials read how thousands of innocent Maryland and Virginia drivers receive delinquency notices in the mail each year. As WTOP Ticketbuster reported, D.C. does not request a make and model from out-of-state DMVs on delinquent tickets, then crosscheck the information against the original citation.

Prince George's County took a keen interest, because it doesn't request that information either.

But while D.C. writes about 2 million parking tickets each year, the Prince George's County Revenue Authority issues about 100,000.

"I think it's helpful to have this conversation because what pulling make and models might do is help catch sloppy ticket writers," says Prince George's County Revenue Authority Director Peter Shapiro. "If we do that, then we could be providing a better service to the residents of the county."

Neighboring Montgomery County already gets the make and model information for all delinquent tickets, as does Fairfax County. A new law in D.C. will require them to do so later this year.

But Shapiro wants to conduct a cost-benefit analysis. He agrees the measure would do a lot of good, but says it's his job to make sure it won't cost taxpayers too much money.

"It's helpful to know that there are other jurisdictions that do it. It gives us a bit of a model -- we know that it works," he says.

Prince George's County outsources ticket processing and collections to Xerox State and Local Solutions. D.C. uses Xerox as well. Fairfax County and Montgomery County use Duncan Solutions, although Montgomery will switch to Xerox this summer.

"A ticket that is written in error is not just an annoyance to the person who received the ticket, but it's an added expense to us as an agency. It's one that we would prefer not to pay," says Shapiro. "It's not just cost to send out the letters; it's the amount of time involved to follow up with residents. There are administrative costs that are not insubstantial for each ticket."

In November 2013, Prince George's County ticket writer Antoine Budd was sentenced to 30 days in jail after writing nearly a dozen fictitious tickets. Also, he used a gas card for his work vehicle to fill up his personal car.

At the time, Shapiro said that Budd was concerned about losing his job because supervisors believed he went AWOL while on the clock.

"If we had a system in place where we checked make-and-models on vehicles, then we would have caught the crime earlier," Shapiro admits. "That would have been helpful. We did catch it, but it's fair to say we would have caught it earlier. That would have saved some people some headaches. It would've saved us some time and money as well."

But Shapiro says that the Budd case was unique, and would not be a major factor in the decision regarding make-and-model information on delinquent parking tickets.

A picture is worth a thousand words

As in D.C., Prince George's County ticket writers often take pictures along with tickets. While it's not required, ticket writers are encouraged to do so. Most tickets will include a picture of the license plate and images that will demonstrate the parking infraction.

But unlike D.C., Prince George's County does not post the pictures online -- the pictures are for internal use only. Also, the agency does not review the pictures before a delinquency notice is sent out to make sure the license plate is correct. About 20 percent of parking tickets go unpaid after 30 days.

"I do not think that would be an effective use of government resources to manually check 20 or 30,000 tickets to try and catch the very, very small number that are inaccurate," says Shapiro.

He adds, though, that if a driver believes a ticket was issued in error, or that the vehicle cited does not belong to them, the agency will go back to the pictures. Also, they will check them if a driver challenges a ticket to District Court.

"If somebody calls us up and says 'This is a Ford and I drive a Nissan,' the first thing we do is find the information that we have access to. If it's a Ford and not a Nissan, then that right there is usually enough to waive the ticket," says Shapiro.

He calls the parking ticket industry "complaint-driven," and that people are really the best resource for letting authorities know when a ticket writer makes an error.

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