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I Fought A Parking Ticket & Won: On Tickets & Taxation

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The making of Cidade de Deus (2002)

This fall I purchased my first car. It was a gorgeous, rugged, perfectly Californian little truck, and sadly, a piece of shit. After a handful of late-summer drives up the PCH to and from Malibu, it was revealed to be wrought with mechanical issues and constantly pegged with parking tickets. To add insult to the perennial injury of being sold a lemon, one weekend, my car was towed from its spot on a residential street, after temporary no parking signs were erected overnight. In order to release it from the impound lot, I had to pay some $300 in fees, and to get those fees back, would be forced to represent myself before a hearing officer, against the Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LADOT) to make my case that there were no probable grounds for my towing.

After about a week of discovery preceding my trial, I gathered a body of evidence to prove that both the towing and the parking ticket were illegitimate exercises of power by the construction company, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), and LADOT. The City’s public records database, Zimas, which houses all development and construction permits, disclosed that the construction company which ordered the towing of my car had not purchased their work-order permit until the day before they were supposed to begin work and they put up no parking signs on cones less than 12-hours before sunrise. A neighbor had taken photos when he saw men posting the signs at night, well after all the cars had been parked. Another neighbor testified that none of the signs were up when she parked at 3PM and hers was one of the five other cars towed in addition to mine.

LADOT has a storied history of complicating the process that allows for the reversal of parking tickets and other citations. A resident of my neighboring district fought two years to receive a refund on the ticketing and towing of her car under circumstances essentially identical to mine. Her city councilman introduced a motion to change the legal requirements around the signage for temporary no parking zones, but the motion is still collecting dust on the desk of the “Public Works and Gang Reduction Committee”.

As it does in many places, ticketing and fining in LA, functions as a regressive tax. A regressive tax is a tax that is applied uniformly, and therefore takes a larger share of income from low-income earners than it does high-income earners. Tickets are the same egregious $63, $73, $146 for everyone, regardless of if your salary is $30,000 or $30 million. But because wealthy people can avoid tickets by simply paying for valets, lot parking and and the like, the brunt of the cost of tickets is absorbed by those utilizing street parking.

The regressive quality of the tickets isn’t so much the problem as is their weaponization by the City. City Hall has admitted that after consecutive years of budget shortfalls, it uses parking tickets as a steady revenue stream and City Controller Ron Galperin has attributed ticket revenue to financing anything from city administrative fees to the salaries of the officers doling out the tickets. This alone should call into question the volume of and justification for the tickets that they issue. The process of fighting a ticket is slow and time-consuming, and without a flexible, salaried job, will force you to miss work and lose wages. It follows then, that for most people, even when out of their budget, it is more worthwhile to pay a ticket than to fight it. Jay Bebeer, a long-time, anti-ticket crusader described the city’s position like this: We know this system is fucked up, but we can’t do anything about it because we really need the money.

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Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort in Wolf of Wall Street. (Mary Cybulski/Paramount Pictures)

In his introduction to economist Gabriel Zucman’s book The Hidden Wealth of Nations, Thomas Piketty invokes Enlightenment thinker John Jacques Rousseau and his famed political philosophy the “social contract” between the government and the governed. The concept was born out of Rousseau’s time in Paris, where, after moving to the city from his rural hometown, he became increasingly aware of the ways that society was ordered by the rich to suit their own interests and not those of the common people. Piketty uses the term “fiscal consent” to contextualize citizens’ agreement to the “compulsory contribution to state revenues”, or in other words, taxation. In democratic societies, he argues, a fundamental tenet of the social contract is that “everybody has to pay taxes on a fair and transparent basis, so as to finance access to a number of public goods and services”. When the majority of people no longer trust the government to carry out its fiduciary duties, and collectively refuse to consent even to the very idea of taxation, the entire system — necessary for the protection and provision of public goods — is called into question.

In theory, taxation should be relatively simple: according to your income, over the course of a year both citizens and corporations must give to the government a discrete amount of money, no more, no less. This sum serves as your contribution to the collective improvement of society at the local, state and federal levels.The government steward over the exchange offers a number of circumstances which allow you to effectively “decrease” the amount of income they use to calculate that discrete amount owed — making payments on federal student loans, owning a home, or starting a small business, for example. But this attempt at reduction is precisely where things get muddy. What was once a simple calculation of dues and debts has become complex and based on accounting rules, that is, determining value based not off of inherent value but a set of agreed-upon rules for valuation. The average person, however, does not know or understand these rules, so if they can afford it, they hire people who do: tax accountants.

Globally, the combined force of tax cuts and tax accountants and tax havens, compromise the integrity of the social contract. The refusal of the individuals holding the largest stores of global wealth to “fiscally consent” to not only fair taxation, but taxation at all, leads to a massive concentration of wealth in the hands of a few private citizens, shortchanging government revenues. Tack on this skirting of taxes on an individual basis to the evasion by multinational, multi-billion dollar corporations and Zucman calculates that every year billions of dollars of financial wealth is hidden from, and, therefore, lost to the global economy.

Because rich people provide the funds that allow politicians to stay in office, they don’t want to make them mad (and stop donating) by taxing them. Other than forcing those few wealthy citizens and corporations to hand over the skirted monies, the next easiest way for governments to chip away at that these mountains of debt is to collect funds in small amounts at high volumes. The same business model that underlies CashApp underlies global clearing houses underlies the American system of ticketing and taxation. Because there are far more people who are broke-to-average than people who are very rich, collecting small, constant annuity streams from them is much easier than overhauling a fundamentally flawed, global system of asset management and wealth taxation.

On the small scale, municipal revenue shortfalls can be mitigated through tickets and fare hikes and criminalizing any around them.

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Total Receipts of Parking Fines in Los Angeles, CA © J Joseph

In Los Angeles, this is exactly the case. In 2002, an expired meter ticket would set you back a reasonable, $35. But because city officials needed to generate revenue for the city’s general fund, over the following 10 years they increased the amount for parking fines and other violations. After 2008, the City (not unlike the rest of the global economy) was in need of cash after finding themselves some $200 million dollars in the red. As a result, by 2012, the cost of a meter parking ticket nearly doubled to $63 per citation. After a certain delinquency period, tickets were ratcheted up to $146 each. In 2008, the city collected roughly $127 million in parking fines and citations, by 2013, that number was up about $30 million dollars, to just under $157 million.

The unique frustration of municipal fines compared to other governmental exercises of power is that it is the most direct form of intervention the government can take into your personal, everyday life. This drives many local politicians’ fixation on improving things like roads, transit systems, local parks — because of their tangible, everyday impact. When it seems that elected officials are not only not improving these things, but also impressing themselves on their constituents’ in an expressly negative way, it erodes their relationship with government until, finally, that relationship implodes, occasionally into violence.

There are few agendas advanced by scorched-earth oil magnates, war-mongering arms dealers, and self-serving social elites more useful than one which erodes the public’s faith in government.

This a worldview is particularly convenient for the Bad Guys who intend to manipulate all these systems for their own benefit.

Historically, attempts to fight LADOT tickets have led to the office siding with police, the contractors and builders over the community members and I began this journey hunkered down by this fact. I was encouraged to be optimistic (“it could work out”) but not too much (“it rarely does”) and be prepared for (inevitable) disappointment. I appreciated their concern but governments should be for the people and when they are not, they should be unambiguously and relentlessly challenged. In light of this, I believed that if said government was not entirely corrupted, in the event of a kind of theft such as this, they would return to me what I was rightfully owed.

And that was the reality. The hearing officer for my case found that there were no probable grounds for my towing that day because that the contractors and city had broken the law by erecting no parking / tow away zone signs less than 24 hours before they went into effect. A few weeks after my ruling, I received a check from Ron Glaperin’s Office for the cost of the tow & release fees, as well as the Uber to and from the multiple tow yards I had to visit that day.

There is a poem by Rev. Victoria Safford called “The Gates of Hope” where she says it is “our mission to plant ourselves at the gates of Hope, [rather than] the prudent gates of Optimism, which are somewhat narrower.” This, she says, “is the place [where we] glimpse not only struggle, but the joy of [it]”. The part I love the most, though, is that she invites us from that spot to call others, to ask them what they are seeing, to tell them, perhaps more pressingly, what it is that we see….

Written by

NY-born, LA-based writer. Allegedly writing an essay collection called Black Cowgirl. Allegedly. Twitter:@jazzyhuncho.

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