Back-Seat Driver

It looked to them like a fake parking ticket. So they paid with fake money

Signage posted at L Street parking lot.
Signage posted at L Street parking lot.

What happens when you park in a lot but don’t put your payment stub on your dashboard? Here’s one cautionary tale:

Erin Muilenburg parked in a lot on L Street one evening last month on the way to a post-work event, and dutifully paid $6 for two hours in the payment kiosk.

She was in a hurry and it was dark out, making her a little uncomfortable, so when the machine did not immediately spit out a payment receipt, she decided to head on to her event, thinking the private parking lot company probably had some other way of knowing she’d paid.

When she got back, she found a “Parking Invoice Notice” on her windshield instructing her to send a $45 check to a payment center. The notice told her not to enclose an appeal. She could pay $25, though, if she paid within two weeks.

Muilenburg says she first thought it was a parking ticket from the city. When she and her husband looked again, they realized it was from the lot owner, Priority Parking. They wondered if the company was trying to squeeze them for an extra $45.

Erin’s husband Chad, an attorney, did some research and dug up a 2011 state Attorney General’s written opinion saying that parking lot owners cannot issue parking citations “imposing monetary sanctions.”

Chad mailed a copy of that legal opinion to the company, along with photocopies of dollar bills – a fake payment, he said, for what he considered a fake ticket. Muilenburg, who works for The Bee’s parent company McClatchy, emailed a reporter about the incident, hoping to warn others who might think they are getting a city ticket.

Our questions: Is the parking lot owner wrong to issue such a steep invoice without double checking to see if the driver paid? Shouldn’t there be some formal appeal process?

Conversely, do drivers break a legal contract by not putting the receipt on the dashboard? If that causes a hassle for the lot owner, should there be a supplemental cost?

The Attorney General’s opinion, while instructive, is not legally binding.

McGeorge Law School professor Michael Malloy, a contract law expert, says it is a contracts question. A person parking in the lot is essentially agreeing to abide by certain rules, he said, but those rules have to be clear and the terms have to be reasonable.

Wording on the receipt and on the signs are quite clear. The lot owner insists parkers are to “display permit on dash or pay invoice.”

But the invoice amount seems confusing. A sign at the front of the lot indicates that the all-day flat rate is $12. A little below that, though, it says a $45 invoice for the all-day rate will be placed on vehicles. The sign does not explain the difference between the two.

In an email, Aaron Zeff, head of Priority Parking, indicated the $12 is a “discount rate” for parkers who prepay, and the $45 is charged for those who do not prepay. He did not say what went into the $45 invoice figure, or whether his employees could check on the spot some other way to see if the vehicle owner had paid.

The lot, by the way, does not have access control gates. Zeff said sometimes people will try to park for free, then pay after they have been issued an invoice. That is something his company has to guard against.

“We check our lots frequently,” he said. “It’s the way we monitor and protect our business in real time. Our customers’ proof of payment is the receipt they’re required to post on their vehicle dash.” The company also now offers payment via a smartphone app called Parkmobile.

State law does allow lot owners to take a more extreme step – towing vehicles away. McGeorge’s Malloy said lot owners could run into trouble if they accidentally tow a customer who paid. Zeff said his company typically won’t tow unless a customer has run up three unpaid parking invoices.

So how did it end up? Zeff says he deleted the invoice. Company records showed a payment was made for that parking space at 5 p.m. that day, when Erin Muilenburg parked there.

But he was not pleased with the fake money mail. Zeff said customers should call so problems can be dealt with “promptly and professionally.”

More than 110 readers responded when we asked for nominations for the worst parking lots in Sacramento. Here are the 10 that got the most votes.