How Detroit's parking fines compare with other major U.S. cities


  • Tom Perkins

A federal class-action lawsuit filed against the city of Detroit and its private parking enforcement company alleges that the city's parking fees are unlawful and unconstitutional.

The complaint — filed just before Christmas in U.S District Court by two residents who received at least one parking ticket — charges that the city continues "to assess parking fines at rates higher than those allowed by city ordinance, collect those assessed fines at rates higher than those allowed by city ordinance, and enforce collection of these unlawful fines .... Further, defendants failed to provide early payment discounts as prescribed by city ordinance."

The Detroit News reports that the suit asks a judge "to declare the city’s parking fines and late fees excessive, and rule that it violates constitutional protections against excessive fines."

The Detroit City Council mostly increased the city's parking fines in July 2015 following an April 2014 order from former Emergency Financial Manager Kevyn Orr. But the lawsuit charges that the ordinance was never updated and still lists the old, cheaper rates.

Indeed, it stings to return to your car — after driving around for 15 trying to find a spot — only to find a $45 parking ticket tucked under the windshield wiper. And it certainly seems unreasonably high, especially in a city with a lot of low-income residents.

But how does that fine compare to those in the nation's other major cities? We took a look and found that Detroit's expired meter fine is roughly in the middle of the pack. Some cities have different rates for violations committed inside and outside of the city center, and others offer a reduced rate if a motorist quickly pays the ticket.

The expired meter fees in 11 other cities are as follows:

Cleveland: $25.
Chicago: $50 to $65.
Pittsburgh: $25 to $45, and fines escalate $15 after 10 days and $25 after 20 days.
New York City: $35 to $65.
Los Angeles: $63.
Houston: $30 if paid within 30 days and $55 after 30 days.
Ann Arbor: $10 if paid by the end of the next business day, $20 if paid within 14 days, $40 if paid within 30 days, and $60 if paid after 30 days.
San Francisco: $73 to $84.
Philadelphia: $26 to $36.
Louisville: $15.
Milwaukee: $22 if paid within 10 days, $28 if paid within 28 days, $34 if paid within 58 days, and $40 if paid after 58 days.

What mostly accounts for the range is cities' differing philosophies. Some city councils and staff see parking tickets as an opportunity to generate revenue for city services or to improve mass transit. Others see it as a tool to enforce parking laws and simply sustain the parking enforcement department.

Before Detroit's fine increase, the city collected less money per ticket than it cost to process the infraction. But the new rate structure is viewed as a revenue generator.

We spoke with the head of a major Midwestern city's parking department who explains the thinking behind his city's parking fine schedule. He says that people will ignore the meter and just pay the ticket if the fine is too low, but people will avoid visiting a downtown district if the fines are too high. So it's a balancing act. 

He adds there's incentive to collect from a certain type of motorist who is frequently downtown.

"When you consider that a lot of motorists parking at meters are out-of-towners, it's a good way to recoup revenue from non-residents who use city services but otherwise don’t pay taxes," he tells us.

That seems reasonable in Detroit, where a whole lot of visitors work downtown, use city infrastructure, and then leave. Others visit an arena partly paid for with around $300 million in Detroit taxpayer funds, use city infrastructure, then head back to their homes in the 'burbs.

Could Detroit set a fine structure that charges non-residents more than city residents?

One of the plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit is a Detroit resident, while the other is a West Bloomfield Township resident.

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