Stephon Clarke, a city parking enforcement officer, leaps into action. He phones a New Jersey call center and reads the license plate: "Young, X-ray, Tom " When the $400 bill is confirmed, he announces, "Thank you. Stand by for the boot."
Two minutes later, the Nissan is shackled in chartreuse metal and a frightening-looking red notice is slapped on the driver's side window: "Seizure by the City of Richmond, Va."
The car won't really be seized, of course. Unless, that is, the owner fails to pony up the $400 in the next 24 hours so he or she can obtain the code necessary to remove the boot. Then the tow truck cometh.
Welcome to the future of parking enforcement: the city's new car-mounted camera that scans the license plates of parked cars to find and trap people who haven't paid their tickets. The system is a service provided free by Lanier Parking Systems, a contractor who pockets a percentage of the fines collected. They're gunning for you: In the first half of the year, the city aims to collect $500,000 of the $4 million in outstanding tickets.
How can you avoid getting the boot? Here are a few tips that will and won't work.
1. When parallel-parking, back your car up until it's almost touching the bumper of the car behind you. This will make it difficult, but not impossible, for the camera to read your plate. The possible consequences: a crunched bumper from too-vigorous "love taps" and nasty notes on your windshield.
2. On a one-way street, park on the left-hand side. Won't work. The parking enforcement patrol mounts the camera on alternate sides of the van to cover both sides of the street.
3. Park in a garage or lot. Private property isn't patrolled by the ticket enforcers.
4. Don't park downtown during business hours. This is a gamble. Though the enforcers mostly work during the day, they'll soon start random evening patrols to catch those who have racked up city parking tickets during late-night revels.
5. "Borrow" the handicapped plates from your grandma. On a recent ride-along, the camera appeared to have difficulty reading the wheelchair symbol and interpreted it as an "A." Ampersands too may be misread. Randy Jones, senior vice president of Lanier Parking Systems, said they'd have to test out the system to see if adjustments are necessary. But if the parking patrol notes that your plates don't match the car, they'll notify police.
6. Already booted and in a hurry? You could jack up your car, take off the booted tire and drive off on the spare. One man did this recently after he'd already paid, oddly enough. Not a good idea. The enforcers have your license plate number, remember.
7. Pay your parking tickets. Duh. But if you're the gambling type, remember that the statute of limitations on tickets is three years so if you can somehow avoid the eye for that long, you're home free. S