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Paper Chase
Milwaukee rolls out a remedy for mistaken parking tickets. But is it enough?
When Luke arrived in Milwaukee in 2007, he brought with him the promise of no more digging through purses and pockets for spare change. He brought the prospect of seamless credit card payments to replace antiquated parking meters. He may have oversold what he could offer the city.

The digitized, multispace parking meter, the state-of-the-art in meter maid oversight, is named for Cool Hand Luke, the 1967 movie that opens with Paul Newman beheading rows of old-fashioned meters. But Luke, the friendly, new-fangled meter, has had his fair share of hiccups since rolling into town. Problems range from checkers writing tickets faster than parkers can plug him to clogged cellular networks preventing payments from registering.

Of the 38,298 parking tickets voided by the city last year, almost 8,000 were tied to meter problems. Many were Luke’s fault, so the city’s Department of Public Works launched a website called “Tix Aid” earlier this year. It’s designed to reverse Luke’s high-tech wrongs. Users can quickly and painlessly overturn bum tickets linked to Luke.

Sounds great, but traffic has crawled. In August and September, the city issued almost 30,000 citations for meter violations. Only 40 were contested using Tix Aid, and 28 got a pass. The rest had to pay up. Non-Luke tickets still have to be contested over the phone or in person.

With whom should the burden of proof rest for correcting mistaken parking tickets – parkers or the city? DPW spokeswoman Sandy Rusch Walton compares the situation to getting overcharged at a restaurant or retail store. “If you find a wrong price or feel you were overcharged, you bring it to the manager’s or your server’s attention and ask for a review,” she says. “If a mistake was made, it is corrected. But you had to bring it to someone’s attention.”

Not so fast, says Ryan Scoville, an assistant professor of law at Marquette University Law School. “The city has certainly made it easier for a resident to remedy the city’s unconstitutional behavior,” he says, “but the availability of a remedy doesn’t mean that a constitutional violation didn’t occur in the first place.”

Constitutional violation?

“The basic idea comes from a provision called the Equal Protection clause,” he explains. “Government can’t irrationally and intentionally treat someone differently from someone else who is similarly situated.”

Example: Two drivers park on the same street, and both feed the meter. Both dawdle while shopping Downtown, but only one gets a ticket. That’s different treatment and possibly a violation of the 14th Amendment. Another possible violation: One innocent parker gets written up and another doesn’t.

The rub is proving in court that the government was acting intentionally, according to Scoville. But success isn’t unprecedented. In March, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of a man suing the City of Chicago for wrongheaded parking tickets that he said amounted to harassment.

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