Saturday, September 27, 2008

Rant: Guilty Until Proven Innocent

Warning: The content of this post may raise your blood pressure. The story told here is true. No names have been changed to protect anyone.

As someone who frequently works in downtown Chicago and has to schlep large instruments to and from my car, parking occupies a far-too-large space in my consciousness. For those who don't know, the first ten minutes of every gig is spent discussing where everyone parked and how much (if anything) each of us had to pay for the "privilege" of stashing a vehicle in the downtown area for a few hours. Often the most challenging aspect of my work is figuring out where to park and how to gain access to the venue in the most efficient allowable way. Strategies for parking in this town are as mulled over and discussed as presidential politics - actually more so, since there isn't a parking "season".

Sometimes mistakes are made. I put that in the passive tense not only to ridicule Ronald Reagan but also to soften the harsh reality that smacks one in the face when one's car gets towed by Streets and Sanitation. Yes, it happens, to some of us more frequently than others. I have been particularly unlucky in this regard, having somehow missed the "tow zone" signs too many times to count, usually because I'm in a hurry and (I'll admit) reluctant to give up the hunt for street parking and actually put my car in a parking lot. Perhaps it is my version of going on safari. Every once in awhile you get mauled by a lion, or a tow truck, as the case may be.

The tow truck drivers have been known to get a little over-zealous. My car has been forcibly removed from several spots unjustifiably. And whenever you get towed, it's the double whammy: you get a parking ticket ($50-75, depending on the type of alleged violation) AND you have to pay $160 for the tow. Then there's the ignominious task of going down into the bowels of hell to retrieve your vehicle from the auto pound.

But the important point here is that when you get towed you are presumed guilty until proven innocent. It is up to the driver to prove that he was NOT in violation of the law. You are slammed with a fine before you even have a chance to make a phone call, let alone have your day in court. It is no secret that collecting parking fines and towing fees is a major source of revenue for the city; so the chances of getting actual justice in these instances is slim to nil.

About ten days ago I was parked on a downtown street early in the morning. I'd carefully observed the posted signs and had put my car in a loading zone: no parking 8 AM to 6 PM. I returned to the spot at 7:50 to discover that my car was gone, no doubt having been glommed by Attila the Tow Man. Within an hour I was down in Dante's Inferno negotiating all the paperwork needed to reunite me with my old minivan and, of course, forking over $160.

The vehicle had been towed in violation of a "No parking 7-9 AM" regulation that supposedly applies to the street where I had parked. Only... there are NO signs stating that anywhere on that block. I was pretty sure of this but I decided to go back with my digital camera to take a batch of pictures that I could use as evidence to support my case. Friends, there really aren't any posted warnings that one might be towed between 7 and 9 AM. I took photos of the actual spot, and the immediate area surrounding the spot, as well as close-ups of the signs and the address.

For added irony, on the day of my hearing I had parked at a meter and was 5 minutes late getting back to that spot, having paid for 2 hours of parking. As I approached the car I saw both Rita the Meter Maid and the little gift she had left for me on the windshield. Ah, what's another $50 at this point? I drove to the City of Chicago Parking Violations Bureau, or whatever the hell its called, paid to park in a lot (which distressed me to no end) and sat myself down in the dreary hearing room waiting for my case to be called.

It turns out that you don't get your case heard by an actual judge. The guy making the call is an attorney contracted by the city to take care of its parking dirty work. I found him to be a small-minded toady, like a character from a David Mamet play. Captain Bringdown informed me that this hearing is just about the towing; dealing with the $60 ticket is a whole separate matter, which I could pursue on another day if I so chose. He found my evidence irrelevant because, get this, I didn't have photos of the entire block showing that there are no signs regarding the 7-9 AM restrictions. The photos only showed that I was not in violation of the loading zone, not the more global (and invisible) regulations.

Needless to say, I was fit to be tied. The only way to appeal this decision is to file a civil suit against the city, which would eat up who knows how much time require me to pay filing fees. I might even have to hire an attorney. So the deck is stacked entirely against the driver, even if he has truly not violated the law. I plan to pursue a defense against the ticket itself, more on the principal of the thing rather than to save the money. I am presently armed with photos of the entire block; up, down and sideways, plus the aerial views.

Have I mentioned that I hate everything having to do with parking downtown?