[Editor's Note: This is the first of two articles about Berkeley's new SmartBoot system. Tomorrow's article will explore the risks to citizens created by the city's use of this technology..]
Have you accumulated too many overdue parking parking tickets? If so, the Berkeley Police Department is putting you on notice: your car may soon be booted.
Beginning October 18th BPD will start using new tools to enforce against parking scofflaws. The "boot van", equipped with cameras, a computer, and wireless network connection, will roam the city scanning the license plates of parked cars, looking for those with too many overdue tickets.
When the boot van spots a vehicle with 5 or more outstanding parking tickets, each at least 30 days old, an alarm will be signaled and the parking enforcement officer will verify the identification and immobilize the vehicle with a SmartBoot™. . Notices will be posted on both the driver's side window and windshield to ensure that drivers know their vehicle cannot be driven.
The SmartBoot physically resembles traditional boots and immobilizes a vehicle in much the same way, but it adds some high-tech twists. SmartBoots have a numeric keypad. A car owner can remove a SmartBoot, in minutes by punching in a secret numeric code. The catch is that to obtain the code, the violator must first call a customer service number, give a credit card number, and pay up. (The new booting program also includes provisions for owners unable or unwilling to pay over the phone by credit card, and provisions for drivers physically unable to remove the boot themselves.)
BPD is encouraging parking ticket scofflaws to pay up now, before October 18th, to avoid the extra hassle and penalties of getting booted.
The Scofflaw Problem
In the twelve month period ending on September 28, 2011, parking ticket scofflaws accumulated a roughly $1.5 million dollar debt to the city.
Until now, the city's system for tracking down violators has been expensive and inconvenient for both the city and the violators:
City employees have had to search "by eye" for offending vehicles and then arrange for them to be towed. The cameras and computers on the boot van are expected to streamline this process: The boot van can drive the speed limit while simultaneously scanning license plates on both sides of the street. One enforcement officer can check many more vehicles per hour than by using traditional methods.
In the past, violators had to spend hours making a payment (including a $300 towing fee, plus impound charges for vehicles not retrieved promptly). Violators had to visit the impound lot to retrieve their vehicles. Now, drivers with a suitable credit card and phone can remove boots themselves, in minutes and be on their way.
The Cost of Getting Caught
If your car is booted, here is what you can expect:
Seizure notices on your car: Parking enforcement officers will attach large notices to the driver's side window and windshield, alerting you that your car has been booted. The notices include a toll free customer service number which operates 24 hours a day, every day.
Opportunity to pay over the phone If you have a suitable credit card, the customer service number can accept payment for your outstanding tickets, plus a $140 non-refundable booting fee, plus a $500 refundable deposit on the boot itself. Those unable to make such a payment can, for example, visit city service center to pay their fine in person.
Self-help removing the boot: Once you are paid up, you'll be given the secret code number that can unlock the boot. You can remove the boot and be on your way in minutes.
Return the boot for your deposit: You must drop off the boot at a return center to receive back your $500 deposit. Late fees accumulate if you do not, although BPD Traffic Bureau Lieutenant Diane Delaney says that the city can work something out with people who genuinely can not make the 24 hour deadline.
Or else get towed after-all: If you've been booted and don't resolve the issue within 48 hours, your car becomes "tow-able", says Delaney, with a corresponding accumulation of additional fees.
Attempting to Enforce Fairly and Evenly
Delaney says that BPD wants to be sure the new enforcement technology is applied evenly to all parts of the city. Therefore, she says, the Traffic Bureau has divided the city into 10 "zones". The boot van will be deployed in one zone at a time, cycling through all other zones before returning.
BPD Public Information Officer Sgt. Mary Kusmiss emphasized that pursuing parking ticket scofflaws has always been a focus of the department — the new boot van and SmartBoot are new tools in that effort, not a change in priorities.