If you missed this sign should you pay a $502 fine?

BALTIMORE - Parking tickets are like surprise visits from your in-laws.  They show up unexpectedly and you wish you could just make them go away.  When a ticket ends up on your dash, you want to fight it.  But some who got giant citations in Baltimore may have more reason to after ABC2 News Investigators went digging.

In Baltimore city, prime parking is golden.  Drivers know finding a space on the street close to where you're going is miraculous so when you see it, you snag it.  But when your eye is on the prize, you may miss the signs that dictate who can park in certain areas. 

Frederick County's Patty Sullivan never noticed a small sign that had big implications.  When she parked on Park Avenue downtown weeks ago, she didn't know she chose special space reserved for handicapped drivers.  And she says, it cost her, "I turned to a passerby and I said ‘I just got a ticket for $502' and they were like ‘What?'."

Sullivan was experiencing the ticket shock that comes with the $502 handicapped parking fine in Baltimore.  Plenty of people have felt it according to the city's Open Baltimore database.  The figures on that site indicate that since the summer of 2010 more than 2,000 tickets totaling more than $1 million have been issued to people who have parked in "Handicapped Zones".  Those tickets are issued by enforcement agents from the city's Department of Transportation. 

Some who received those tickets believe they should get their money back.  We caught up with driver Dan Slattery on Park Avenue and asked him about the Handicapped Zone on the unit block.  He says "There are no signs that say anything about handicapped parking anywhere."

But there is a sign.  One sign at the north end of the block indicates there is a handicapped zone.  But it's tough to see because the only marking is a blue square smaller than the length of my pinkie finger.  But in an email to Sullivan, Essence Dent-Bey with Baltimore City's Department of Transportation indicates she should have spotted it, saying, "You must read all signs on the block even if it's on the corner. A sign may be placed at the end of the block for a restriction for the entire block."

Sullivan admits she didn't see the sign and never even know it existed.  But even knowing wouldn't have helped her because the sign doesn't say where the handicapped zone exists.  It simply indicates there is one.

Bruce Ingerman, an attorney who owns the building at the corner of Park and Fayette, says the zone has caused confusion for years, "Where that begins and where that ends, nobody knows." 

The people who got handicapped parking tickets on that unit block potential didn't know.  And the Open Baltimore database shows the city made almost $5,000 from handicapped parking tickets just on that block.  Ingerman says, "I think the city ought to take a look at their signage and correct it.  It's very easy to do."

Ingerman says a sign that once spelled out things has been missing for years, although DOT spokeswoman Adrienne Barnes said the area was clearly marked regardless of whether there were two signs or one.  Barnes told us "Enforcing agents are taught that a named street or another sign/ violation stops the previous violation. In the pictures and at the location there are 2 distinct areas. That area has always been posted as handicapped and whether with one sign or two signs it is clearly distinctive from the EZ pay area. It is 3 spaces and the sign is clear from all 3 spaces."

But once we called the Parking Authority of Baltimore City, which installs and oversees parking signage in the city, a second sign re-appeared.  Tiffany James, a spokeswoman with the agency quickly admitted an additional sign was needed and took action, saying a work order had already been submitted to install a new one.  Three days after we contacted the agency, a second sign was added to the block.  Now Sullivan hopes her $502 citation will go away.  She says, "I really think the ticket should be cleared.  I don't think I should have to go to court and return to Baltimore."

Both the Parking Authority and the city's Department of Transportation have asked for Sullivan's information and say they're working to resolve her ticket.  The Parking Authority's new sign allocates just one parking space for the handicapped, although in the past when the sign was missing, agents with DOT have ticketed as far back as three spaces from the original sign according to Barnes who says, "Legally the handicapped sign that remained would have governed several spaces back to where different regulations were posted".  

Barnes says photos accompany parking tickets issued by DOT agents and their agency is reviewing the photo from Sullivan's citation.  She says consumers who wish to challenge tickets they've received can appeal the citation in court.

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