Philadelphia drivers know all about the frustrations of on-street parking, from garden-variety disputes with Parking Authority functionaries, to the ongoing disappearance of legally parked cars through the phenomenon known as “courtesy” towing.
Maybe it’s time to look 30 miles south to Wilmington, where drivers, lawyers, and community organizations have banded together — and are fighting back.
A new coalition of groups — including AAA Mid-Atlantic, the NAACP, the Latin American Community Center, and the Institute for Justice public-interest law firm — sent a letter Tuesday to Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki and City Council demanding explanations and changes to what they view as the city’s confusing and predatory towing policies.
According to a AAA analysis, Wilmington drivers are much more likely to be towed or booted than drivers in comparably sized cities, or even much larger cities like Chicago and Washington.
“All too often, government views its citizens as nothing more than a convenient source of revenue,” said Robert Johnson, an attorney at the Institute for Justice, which has filed suits elsewhere challenging excessive government fines and fees.
At a news conference, members of the Wilmington coalition expressed frustration with how the city tickets, tows, and boots vehicles, as well as the administrative court that handles parking disputes. Johnson said that court “by all accounts is Kafkaesque,” with vehicle owners waiting months or longer to get a decision.
“The city is making it difficult or even impossible for people who have been issued these tickets to see a real judge,” he said.
The coalition also raised questions about whether drivers are being properly notified when their vehicle is towed, as well as the city’s outsourcing of parking enforcement to private companies that appear to have a financial incentive to collect as much money as possible through ticketing and booting. The coalition wants a review of the Office of Civil Appeals, which hears parking ticket disputes.
Drivers say Wilmington’s ticketing and appeals process is confusing and exhausting.
Erin Markham, a 38-year-old finance worker, has been fighting with the city over parking for the last six months.
In March 2020, when Wilmington shut down due to the pandemic, the mayor issued a statement stating that ticketing would be suspended. The city said in July that ticketing for time restrictions and metered spots would resume — but only in the business district and along the Riverfront.
According to a map found on the city’s website, Markham’s home is in a residential area outside of the business district. Yet, she somehow still received one ticket in October, then three in November. She said a city official told her she was ticketed because her neighborhood connects I-95 to the rest of the business district.
“Oh my God, it’s a headache,” Markham said. She said she is constantly thinking about where her Toyota Forerunner is parked and rushing to make sure she doesn’t get another ticket.
But the tickets for Markham have kept coming, the most recent last month. She’s trying to appeal the March ticket but doesn’t have a court date, so each month, she gets a $20 fine on top of the $50 initial ticket.
Steve Villanueva Sr. of the Latin American Community Center said Wilmington’s parking enforcement is a longtime problem that has gotten out of hand.
“There are times when I can honestly say 10 employees got tickets in one day,” Villanueva said, adding that the community center’s clients, some of whom live below the poverty level, have been ticketed when they visit the center.
“For us to get tickets and clients to get tickets in this neighborhood is absolutely crazy,” Villanueva said. “Every day.”
Dominique Grant, 38, a finance manager, still hasn’t gotten her 2008 Honda Accord back a year after a private tow company improperly towed it from a legal parking spot on city property. She said the company tried charging her $500, then offered to return it for free, but only if she’d sign a form releasing it from any damage as a result of the tow.
Grant decided to take the company to court instead, hoping to prevent future unlawful tows in Wilmington. Her court date is next month, after it was delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Here it is a year later and I still don’t have my car,” Grant said. “And who knows how many other people’s cars have been towed through this company.”
In September 2019, Wilmington officials acknowledged problems with parking enforcement in the city and promised that reform was coming. John Rago, deputy chief of staff for Mayor Purzycki, said the city would review the coalition’s information.
“We support a fair and efficient parking enforcement system in Wilmington,” Rago said in a statement. “We hope the report submitted will be helpful in that regard.”
Back in Philadelphia, drivers are increasingly outraged by the practice of “courtesy” towing.
When legally parked cars are relocated by the Philadelphia Parking Authority, police, or a private tow company for construction or special events, it is not always properly recorded, leaving drivers unable to find their cars. Some are forced to report them stolen. Fighting tickets that accrue in the new parking locations can be nearly impossible, because there is no record of the tow.
This month, a city resident was pulled over in Virginia by police who believed she was driving a stolen vehicle. It was her own car that had been courtesy-towed in December. She had reported it stolen then, as advised by police, but they apparently did not take it out of the stolen-vehicle database after she reported back that she had found the car on a side street by walking in concentric circles.
Despite widespread publicity over the last year, Philadelphia officials have not publicly expressed any intent to fix the problem.