2 Investigates exposed a Canadian company issuing its own parking tickets at an Emeryville lot, despite warnings from the city that private businesses are not legally allowed to give citations. Impark, which operates lots across North America, argues that the company-issued tickets are not technically citations, but “notices” of a debt owed to the corporation by drivers who violate their parking terms or overstay their meters.
Frustrated customers contacted 2 Investigates after receiving $60 tickets from Impark at a metered, privately-owned parking lot near Emeryville’s Bay Street shopping district. The so-called E-meter lot is located underneath the main parking structure east of Bay Street, which is accessible from Christie Avenue. The upper levels of the lot require drivers to take a ticket from an automated machine, drive through a barrier gate, and pay parking fees upon exiting. But the E-meter lot, located in a loading zone beneath the main structure, does not offer drivers timed parking slips. Instead, drivers who park there pay coin-only meters.
Impark’s spokesman said the company was hired to enforce parking regulations in the structure by Bay Street’s property management company, Madison Marquette.
Overstepping legal bounds?
Impark said that when drivers who park at the lots they manage overstay the meter time or don’t pay at all, the company issues a “notice for payment.” The company insists the demand for money is not a citation. But Emeryville’s City Attorney Michael Biddle disagreed. He told 2 Investigates that the company appears to be overstepping its legal bounds.
Biddle cited a 2011 legal opinion by California’s Attorney General Kamala Harris, which states that “private property owners may not acquire, by means of issuing a written warning or posting signage, the right to issue parking citations imposing monetary sanctions to the owners of vehicles parked on their property.”
A handful of Bay Area cities, including Walnut Creek, have passed ordinances allowing private companies to issue their own parking violations under strict rules. But no such ordinance exists in the city of Emeryville.
Biddle confirmed that Madison Marquette had already been warned in February that the practice of issuing private citations was not legal under the Attorney General’s opinion.
According to emails obtained by 2 Investigates, Madison Marquette and Impark attempted to take over parking meter enforcement on Bay Street’s main thoroughfare from the Emeryville Police, in exchange for sharing 40 percent of the ticket revenue with the city. On February 25, Madison Marquette’s Vice President of Development Cedric Young wrote, “with greater turnover and stalls always occupied on Bay St., we conservatively estimate we could recover about $70,000 in citations from Bay St. alone (with $30 tickets). If we match the City's $55 ticketing rate, we could potentially double that estimate from Bay St. collections.”
But in an email response forwarded to Young a week later by City Manager Sabrina Landreth, the City Attorney replied, “The answer is a clear and unequivocal, No! This is not the first time the City will have shared this information with Madison Marquette.”
The City Attorney's email continues, "As you can read for yourself, private property owners have no legal authority to issue such a citation and nor do tow companies have the right to collect those citations. The only remedy available to a private property owner with respect to someone who has not paid for the right to park on their property is to tow the vehicle."
The email exchange ends that day with Young responding that he would be back in touch with Landreth, but she told 2 Investigates that she never received any further communication from the company.
When questioned about the legality of issuing private parking tickets, and the City Attorney’s warning to stop, Impark responded with a written statement saying “these practices are similar to those of other operators of private parking facilities, and accepted as standard in the industry. Impark is not aware of any law restricting it from providing such services to its clients in the jurisdictions in which it operates in California.”
Sgt. Joel Hannon, head of Emeryville Police Department’s Traffic Division also told 2 Investigates that Impark and Madison Marquette should be clear on the city’s position. “The city has explained to them that they should stop,” he said. “What they're doing now, it's going to be up to a court's interpretation to whether or not, or what happens with them next.”
“They all know that the city's stance on this is they should not be collecting or penalizing people with citations,” Hannon said, “and then asking for people, or requiring people to pay penalties for parking there.”
Hannon said Impark could instead install a barrier gate at the entrance to the E-meter lot, similar to the one currently operating on the upper levels of the Bay Street parking garage. “That's all they have to do really in order to bypass the problems that they have now.”
Threats of legal action
Driver Kevin Toda said he parked in the E-meter lot while he shopped on Bay Street on a Saturday, and returned to his car a few minutes after the meter expired to find a ticket on his windshield. He was surprised to discover the violation was not issued by the city of Emeryville, but instead was called a “notice” and labeled with Impark’s company logo. The document instructed Toda to pay $60 directly to Impark’s San Francisco office for the meter violation. It also stated that if paid within seven days, the amount would be reduced to $30.
The back of the “notice” explained that the penalty amount represents “a debt owing to Imperial Parking (U.S.), LLC, and is set to cover lost revenues as well as the costs of patrol and preliminary collections.” It also warned that if the balance is not paid within 30 days, “it will be forwarded to a debt collection agency for collection,” and Impark may also sue to recover the money.
“I definitely thought that it was a little threatening that the ticket says I can be taken to collections,” said Toda. “They seem to be intimidating people and trying to get money, and almost extorting money out of people in a way.”
However, according to Biddle, Impark would have to sue a driver in civil court in order to recover any debts they claim from unpaid citations. He warned that if a driver declines to pay the ticket and is served with court papers, ignoring the case could lead to a default judgement in Impark’s favor. A judgement would legally verify the debt as legitimate and entitle the company to collect. Instead, Biddle advised that drivers should pay close attention to the company’s response and fight any attempts to collect or sue.
Impark told 2 Investigates that they “reserve the right to seek remedy under the law for unpaid notices,” but so far in California they have not taken any drivers to court over unpaid tickets.
Toda said he’s worried that his credit could be negatively impacted if the company forwards his unpaid ticket to a collection agency without his knowledge.
“I think it's a flat out rip off,” said Toda. “I think they're preying on people who don't take the time and effort, they go ahead and pay the ticket. And I think they bank on the fact that they know people will, rather than fight it and go through the effort, just go ahead and pay that fee.”
Impark declined to share the exact number of unpaid citations they have forwarded to collections agencies.
According to an email obtained by 2 Investigates, the company issued 2,130 tickets at the Bay Street location between June 1, 2013 and January 31, 2014. And of those, 1,011, or 47 percent, were paid.
“We have generated over $30,330 in 7 months only ticketing the E-meter zone,” Impark’s Bay Street manager wrote in the email.
Disputing a ticket
The fine print on Impark’s tickets, as well as the company’s website, offer drivers a toll free number where they can call to contest a fine. But Toda said that when he called and spoke to a customer service agent, located in Canada, they refused to dismiss his citation completely and there was no process to appeal.
When 2 Investigates called the number to inquire about the ticket dispute process, a customer service agent explained that he was authorized to reduce the payment amount to $20 for notices issued in the U.S., and $35 in Canada, but no lower. When pressed about how much authority each customer service representative has to offer discounts, this particular agent explained that discounts are determined at each individual agent’s discretion.
In a written statement, Impark confirmed that “agents are provided the latitude to reduce, or entirely waive payments in the case of a customer misunderstanding the payment system, or encountering extenuating circumstances.” But the company did not offer any further explanation about whether drivers can further appeal the validity of a ticket if they are not satisfied with the decision of the customer service agent who handles their phone call.
Conversely, with tickets issued by the city of Emeryville or any other municipality, a multi-level process exists for drivers to appeal citations with the city. In Emeryville, a citizen can request a review hearing, and can meet with Sgt. Hannon, the department’s designee. If a driver still isn’t satisfied with the outcome, there are further steps they can take to appeal a ticket.
“If the person does not agree with my recommendation or my finding, my determination, then there's an appeals process above me,” said Sgt. Hannon. “They can go to the Chief of Police or after that to an independent appeals or arbitrator.”
In other lots run by Impark that 2 Investigates visited, signs with the company logo and parking terms were clearly displayed. At a lot at Fort Mason, where drivers pay for parking by stall number through an automated machine, an Impark sign was posted at the entrance. In the fine print, it states that vehicle owners who don’t pay or overstay their time “may be cited,” and that by parking on the lot drivers are agreeing to the posted terms. But at the E-meter lot in Emeryville, not such sign exists.
The only signs posted in the Bay Street E-meter lot instruct drivers to contact Emeryville Police if their car is towed. There are no signs indicating that the lot is operated by Impark.
Impark told 2 Investigates that they are temporarily suspending meter enforcement in the E-meter lot until signs outlining Impark’s parking and ticketing policies could be posted. In a written statement, the company said, “A review of the particular lot operation in Emeryville has revealed signage that is inconsistent with Impark’s standard arrangement, and potentially confusing to the public.”
But Toda, and other drivers using the E-meter lot who spoke to 2 Investigates, say the confusion goes beyond the signs. The meters installed in the lot are also labelled “City of Emeryville.” Sgt. Hannon said the E-meter lot is not associated with the city and the city does not get any of the revenue from those meters. Impark’s spokesman said the meters were already installed in the lot when the company took over enforcement.
Toda told 2 Investigates that despite Impark’s plans to hang signs at Bay Street explaining the company’s terms and conditions, he believes most drivers are not aware of the law in California and will simply pay the private tickets without further research.
“I already called them and let them know I have no intention of paying the ticket,” said Toda. “And not only that, there's really no other fair reason they should have been issuing the ticket in the first place.”
“I don't know their motivations,” said Sgt. Hannon, “but I do know that unless they're told to do otherwise, they will do what they believe that they're authorized to do.”
Impark’s complete statement in response to questions raised by 2 Investigates is below. Phone calls requesting to speak to a representative of Madison Marquette were not returned.
Impark serves property owners in managing parking operations at private parking facilities, and in the course of doing so, may protect the contractual rights of those private property owners by providing enforcement services that support parking payment systems. Impark may issue a notice for payment to a vehicle that has either overstayed the paid parking session, or parked when no payment was made at all. These practices are similar to those of other operators of private parking facilities, and accepted as standard in the industry. Impark is not aware of any law restricting it from providing such services to its clients in the jurisdictions in which it operates in California.
We believe the practice of issuing notices is highly preferable to the alternate of towing a vehicle, which causes inconvenience, and may jeopardize the safety of the driver and their family. Impark operates an in-house customer support center to resolve enforcement disputes. Agents are provided the latitude to reduce, or entirely waive payments in the case of a customer misunderstanding the payment system, or encountering extenuating circumstances. Impark has the clear objective of serving its customers, and representing the interests of its clients, the property owners, and while we reserve the right to seek remedy under the law for unpaid notices, in California we have, to date, elected not to do so.
A review of the particular lot operation in Emeryville has revealed signage that is inconsistent with Impark’s standard arrangement, and potentially confusing to the public. Enforcement at this particular location has been temporarily suspended until the lot signage, and labelling on the meters, has been corrected. We are thankful to KTVU for bringing this to our attention.