Click it and ticket, Baltimore

The Baltimore Sun

In the shadow of Baltimore City Hall, a shiny, black Cadillac Escalade was parked on Guilford Avenue - in a no-stopping zone, Violation 12 in ticketing parlance. Parking control agent Tiffany Chambers, attempting to extend a courtesy yesterday morning, asked members of a nearby film crew if the vehicle was theirs. Her supervisor radioed the office to check whether the hulking sport utility vehicle with a rear license plate frame advertising Miller Brothers Cadillac in Ellicott City had some sort of permit.

Unluckily for the Escalade's driver, the response was negative on both counts. So Chambers unclipped her new computerized ticketing machine from her hip and promptly wrote (actually typed) a $27 ticket. The crisp white paper unfurled from inside the top of the small machine. Using another of the computer's functions, she snapped a photo, just in case the accused mounts a challenge.

"So if I went to court, it would stand up," said Chambers, who routinely walks the city's downtown streets issuing tickets.

The city's Department of Transportation began equipping its parking enforcers yesterday with hand-held computers to issue parking tickets.

They add to a technologically and environmentally savvy operation that includes vans equipped with real-time license plate reading cameras that identify stolen cars; scores of multispace EZ Park meters that have replaced old-fashioned meters and take credit cards; and two tiny electrically motorized cars that allow parking agents greater freedom in navigating downtown's often jammed streets.

Gone are the paper tickets that required agents to handwrite violations - including the date and time and the vehicle's description and license plate. Not to mention, the agent had to sign each ticket and, of course, write in his or her badge number. Now with computers, the date, time and signature pop up automatically. If an agent should type in the license plate of a car that is stolen, an alert will appear on the computer's screen, allowing the agent to report the vehicle to the police.

The department's supervisors will save time, too. No longer will they have to enter all of the handwritten tickets into a database. Once a ticket is issued, it's automatically there. Each year, the city's more than 60 parking control agents issue about 380,000 tickets.

Already our neighbors to the south, Washington, and to the north, Wilmington, Del., use the technology to issue tickets. Baltimore officials expect the new machines, which cost a total $443,000, to enable agents to write tickets more efficiently and faster, and reduce the number of errors that can render the citations invalid.

"What we're doing with the cameras, the hand-held [ticket writing computers], we're having them all work in tandem," said Ken Strong, chief of the department's safety division. "The agents are happier doing their work with the new equipment. It's more fulfilling. We're helping people get their cars back. That's been a big plus for us."

Out on the prowl yesterday, inside a big white truck stamped with a "City of Baltimore" seal and flashing lights on top, Kimberly Garner drove down East Monument Street. A screen on the dash, equipped with license plate reading software, showed the parked cars on both sides of the street.

Then the screen turned red; a tag number flashed and the word "scofflaw" appeared. A Ford Taurus in the 1600 block had $862 in unpaid parking fines and penalties. The Taurus was booted and slapped with a note, "Warning. Do Not Move This Vehicle."

The camera picked up another scofflaw - a 2004 plum-colored Ford Explorer in the 500 block of the Fallsway. A Baltimore police uniform shirt hung from a hook in the back seat.

"There's no favoritism here," Garner said, as she placed a boot on the SUV's front left wheel.

City officials said the cameras have helped find 70 stolen cars since March. Before, Garner said, she would have to call out plate numbers to her partner, who would enter them in a laptop computer to find those with more than three unpaid violations in 30 days.

"Her wrist got tired after a while," Garner said. "It's so much easier, faster. We find a lot of stolen cars."

Back on the walking beat, Chambers spotted a Mercury Montana near Baltimore and Charles streets, parked at an expired meter. A uniform patch, "Maryland Medical Technician" was sitting on the dash.

"People think they can put a patch in their window and not pay the meter. It doesn't work that way," Chambers said.

Levar Parker, 19, was one of the city's first violators to receive a computerized ticket yesterday. He was slapped with a $27 fine for not adhering to the city parking lot's "head-first policy," meaning he backed his red Chevrolet Cavalier into the spot behind the Hollywood Diner downtown.

Arriving at his car, with less than five minutes left on the meter, he was a bit stumped, but refreshingly unperturbed, by the ticket on his windshield.

"It don't seem like I've been here too long," said Parker, who said he dropped two quarters into the meter before walking down to the Inner Harbor.

After reviewing the new ticket, emblazoned with a red strip, he proclaimed, "It's more detailed. I think it's good. So people don't try to make a big argument out of it, because it's self-explanatory."

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