Investigation identifies Kansas City's top parking offenders, reveals glitch in new technology

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Nobody likes to get a parking ticket, but the majority of drivers grudgingly fork over the money to pay the fine.

However, a 41 Action News investigation of Kansas City Municipal Court records found there are dozens of parking offenders who have let their tickets stack up for years.

The investigation of thousands of unpaid tickets also revealed a huge glitch in the city's new paperless technology. 41 Action News asked why it happened, how it is being fixed to avoid the potential waste of taxpayer resources, and what is being done to track down the city's worst offenders.

Reviewing thousands of unpaid tickets

Last year, the Kansas City Municipal Court became the first in the nation to transition to an entirely paperless system . This means court employees transferred millions of paper tickets into a much easier-to-access computer system.

41 Action News was the first media outlet to request the entire database of unpaid parking tickets. The results added up to nearly 39,000 tickets totaling an estimated $1.8 million in parking fines.

Analysis of those records showed at least 160 people and companies had at least 10 unpaid tickets (note: The database used for the investigation was produced on April 10, 2012. It is possible that some tickets have been paid since that date).

And some drivers had accumulated 30, 40 or even 80 tickets. Click here to see KC's top 20 offenders.

Court Administrator John Franklin said the overall collection rate on tickets is better than 90 percent. However, the high numbers for a minority of drivers surprised him. Franklin pointed out people have a warrant issued after just one overdue unpaid ticket, so chronic offenders are just a simple traffic stop away from being handcuffed.

"They're lucky. That's all it is," he said. "Maybe they like the thrill of the chase? I just don't know."

Tracking down the scofflaws

41 Action News caught up to Aaron Wendel on his way to lunch on April 26. The Johnson County resident had amassed more than 80 unpaid tickets while parking outside his downtown Kansas City office.

Wendel expressed surprise that he had so many violations, saying he had settled up more than 90 unpaid tickets with the Municipal Court back in 2008. Recently, he has started parking in a private garage to avoid running the risk of another violation.

However, the remaining unpaid tickets were issued to a vehicle registered under his wife's name. Wendel acknowledged that if she is busted for his tickets, the police or the court system would be the least of his worries.

"You only get away with this for so long and eventually they catch up to you so, one of these days, I will be paying a substantial amount of money to the city of Kansas City again," Wendel said.

41 Action News also tracked down Brenda Nelson outside her downtown apartment on April 20. A day earlier, we spotted her car parked at an expired meter. According to court records, Nelson already has more than 40 tickets on her record.

When asked why she did not find legal places to park, Nelson said, "There are legal places to park, but they are not free. There's really no free parking downtown."

The parking ticket dilemma appears to be an issue that has followed Nelson for decades. Court records indicated she had already been arrested for unpaid tickets twice: once in 2009 and another time way back in 1989.

"I will probably leave the city now that you have me back on the radar," she said.

Are companies getting a free pass?

One thing 41 Action News noticed from the unpaid parking ticket database was that several rental car companies were some of the worst offenders. For instance, Hertz owed more than $10,000 for 247 tickets. Avis-Budget had 149 tickets for more than $6,700. And Enterprise had racked up 90 tickets for more than $4,000.

Parking tickets are issued to the registered owner of the vehicle. However, City Prosecutor Loel Gard said there is an exception for rental car companies, who can transfer liability to the customer. In many cases, though, that does not seem to be happening.

"That's kind of the conundrum," Franklin said. "You can't arrest a company. We can issue a warrant in the name of a company, but there is no way to really enforce that warrant."

Out of the top 10 violators (based on number of tickets) reviewed by 41 Action News, four of them were car rental companies.

41 Action News contacted Hertz, Avis-Budget and Enterprise to inquire about the unpaid tickets.

A spokeswoman for Enterprise said the company contacts thousands of local governments every year to provide contact information for the centralized location that handles customer violations. The spokeswoman said she would have to research the specific situation in Kansas City.

A spokeswoman from Avis-Budget said parking violations are sent to a third-party vendor to handle processing of the citations.

"The vendor sends the municipality the name of the renter, and transfers liability or in the alternative, the ticket is paid

and the vendor attempts to collect from the renter directly," read a statement sent to 41 Action News. T

Hertz has yet to respond.

Investigation discovers a glitch with new technology

41 Action News also discovered hundreds of tickets issued without any vehicle owner's name. The majority of these tickets were stacked in chronological order immediately after the Municipal Court's transition to paperless records in late August, 2011.

Franklin said the inquiry revealed a glitch in the system. Apparently, the new handheld devices provided to city parking enforcement officers did not have access to Department of Revenue driving records in other states, even license plates right across the state line in Kansas.

In the database, those violations simply showed up as "unknown." Franklin said the communication problem with the handheld devices has since been corrected. Staff members are also going to back to review all the "unknown" tickets.

Kansas City police and aviation officers did not have the same issue, but Franklin said the situation had the potential to create a huge waste of resources for the thousands of tickets written by city parking enforcement officers.

"Frankly, your station triggered that review," he said.

Will Kansas City change enforcement technique?

With the ease of quickly tallying tickets in the new electronic database, Franklin said it will be tougher for the top offenders to hide in the weeds.

"I will be turning those over to the police," he said.

The Kansas City Police Department does not have dedicated warrant sweeps for parking scofflaws.

"But anyone who has police contact with any kind of warrant can find themselves in jail," said spokesman Capt. Steve Young.

41 Action News also asked about other enforcement techniques, like the so-called "parking boot" the city of Olathe started using back in 2008 . The metal clamp is placed on the wheel of offenders' vehicles, preventing them from driving away until their debt is paid.

Franklin said it might be worth having a discussion about whether Kansas City should add the boot to its fine-collecting repertoire.

"A lesson needs to be learned for folks who are trying to game the system or run the gambit ever day," he said.

Ryan Kath can be reached at ryan.kath@kshb.com. You can also follow him on Twitter or connect with him on Facebook.

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