Few things ruin a day in Philadelphia quite like a ticket.

Sure, the state-controlled Philadelphia Parking Authority receives the most ire when it comes to bureaucratic wrist slaps. But City Hall also runs its own, lesser-known ticketing system that has gradually become a $5 million-a-year revenue stream.

Welcome to the world of code violation notices, or CVNs.

Ranging from $25 to $250, these tickets are issued for a bewildering array of acts (and non-acts) that run afoul of city code. Philadelphia wrote more than 1.1 million code violation notices between 2008 and 2018, according to a Billy Penn analysis of city data.

The analysis found nearly 300 different offenses that yielded a fine over the last decade, which read like a description of a long walk through Philly. The ticket-book includes everything from honest mistakes (putting the trash out early) to common grievances (dog crap on the sidewalk) to previously criminalized activities (marijuana possession).

Other tickets appear inexplicable and downright absurd. One was written for a “jogging violation,” and another for a “tennis violation.” Yet another simply described the offense as “poor workmanship.”

Taken together, the 1.1 million citations represent a potential $100 million boost for the city’s oft-struggling balance sheet.

Problem is, only half of them ever got paid.

It’s unclear if the city breaks even on efforts to issue and collect these fines, which officials say act as a deterrent for bad behavior. Limited staff, legal obstacles, difficulty tracking down violators — given these barriers, officials view the payment rate as a success.

“Our 50% compliance rate is a strong indication that our collection efforts are effective,” said Melissa C. Andre, the executive director of the Office of Administrative Review, which pursues payment for tickets issued by all city agencies.

Out of about 100,000 CVNs written each year, only a few thousand end up in court for nonpayment. For the overwhelming majority, the penalty for noncompliance is slim to none.

Thou shall not litter, smoke or…spit

Home and business owners are likely all too familiar with the trash collection-related tickets. These offenses make up 42 percent of the CVNs issued between 2008 and 2018. The most common citation is for mixing your recycling and your rubbish, to the tune of 125,270 tickets over the decade.

Ever get slapped with a ticket for putting your trash out early before pickup day? So did 100,920 other Philadelphians.

In total, Billy Penn identified about 50 offenses related to waste management, most of them dealing with dumpsters. The overflowing garbage fountains that proliferate next to businesses across the city are a priority target, the data shows. But no infraction is too small. You can also get cited if your dumpster needs a new coat of paint.

It should come as little surprise that the second biggest code violation category pertains to Philadelphia’s mascot of shame: litter.

Believe it or not, the city has issued nearly 350,000 tickets for litter-related offenses in the last decade, mostly to property owners for trash on their property or sidewalk. Overgrown weeds accounted for another tenth of all tickets. And come winter snow, shovel your sidewalk or face a CVN.

Smoking, tobacco and drug-related offenses make up a large swath of offenses as well. Marijuana use and possession has become a growing source of code violations since its decriminalization in 2014. Same goes for tickets for drinking alcohol in public or smoking cigarettes on SEPTA platforms, both of which have spiked over the last decade.

This Rosetta Stone of a codebook includes all manner of miscellaneous rule-breaking.

Nearly 6,000 tickets were issued to minors for curfew violations between 2008 and 2018. Billy Penn identified five different types of tickets for skateboarding on public and private property, including one violation specifically for skaters at the popular Municipal Services Building plaza (221 tickets).

Citations are also issued for spitting (267), feeding pigeons (62), tailgating (19), having a horse without a license (18); eating on SEPTA (14); camping in the park (7), and selling prohibited animals (3).

On the surface, it’s unclear what city ordinances are even violated in some cases. Asked about the “tennis violation” and “jogging violation” tickets, city spokesperson Mike Dunn confirmed Department of Parks and Recreation has the authority to issue these fines — though they’re very rare.

“They might be written if someone were playing baseball on a tennis court or jogging on a tennis court,” he said.

Does the cost of code ticketing even pay for itself?

While law enforcement and other city agencies can issue CVNs, Philadelphia’s biggest ticketer is the Streets Department.

Streets’ fleet of ticketing officers cost the city nearly $2.5 million for the current fiscal year, to patrol and flag suspicious dumpsters and squalid footpaths.

That alone equals about half the amount the city collects from CVN revenue annually. The Office of Administrative Review has another 15 staffers overseeing compliance on the 100,000 tickets issued each year. There are also personnel costs for L&I, the police, health officials and the courts — not to mention collection costs.

While a full cost analysis could not be conducted before, officials contend it doesn’t matter if the program pays for itself. The overarching goal of citations is raise awareness and modify behavior.

“The goal is not to ‘break even,’” Dunn said. “The goal is to improve the quality of life for Philadelphians.”

Dunn added that even if CVN enforcement cost more than it brought in — “and we don’t know if that is the case” — it would still be a priority.

As for improving the collection rate, that could cost more than it’s worth.

Currently, the city sends letters to violators reminding them to pay up — with added late penalties. Then comes a threat to file a complaint in Municipal Court and seek a $300 court-ordered judgement for each unpaid ticket. (Here’s the explanation of that process.)

But for most violators, it never gets that far. The Office of Administrative Review doesn’t have the staff to pursue most cases. About one in 10 unpaid tickets were sent to court last year, according to city data, which is a stark decrease from previous years.

There are other problems with collection: Court-mandated fines against property owners sometimes aren’t collected until the property is sold. Non-property owners can be hard to track down for compliance — especially for personal conduct violations like public drinking and failure to disperse.

“Resolving such concerns is extremely time consuming,” Andre, the administrator, wrote in an email.

The city also offers each violator a payment hearing, where fees and penalties can be negotiated according to their needs. Even one ticket presents a serious challenge for many in Philadelphia, where more than a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line, Andre said.

Amid these challenges, payment compliance has climbed under Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration. The city’s collection rate in 2016 was 56 percent, compared to 42 percent eight years prior.

Behavior modification, Philly style

The code violation has become a popular alternative to arrests for misdemeanor offenses, which can tarnish your criminal record.

But with 300 offenses and a big city to cover, which offenses get prioritized — and where — is another question. City spokesperson Dunn said that enforcement emphasis is determined at the department level, although some dictates have historically been passed down from mayors themselves, or from various city councilmembers.

The data also illustrates various city initiatives and policies going into effect over the years. Sometimes, even media coverage of specific grievance appears to inspire an uptick in enforcement.

For example:

  • Tickets spiked in 2012 following a series of critical articles by then-Daily News columnist Stu Bykofsky about so-called sidewalk cafes (i.e. outdoor seating at restaurants), that encroached on pedestrian walkways. Tickets for “unlicensed sidewalk cafes” were a rarity prior to Byko’s sidewalk war; code enforcers have written over 600 in the years since.
  • Virtually no tickets were issued for leaving your mattress out on the sidewalk until 2014. That’s when a bed bug scare led the city to start ticketing for failing to seal mattresses in plastic before disposal. (The policy shift had some unintended effects: Unsealed mattresses piled up on the streets after sanitation crews refused to take them.) The city has since issued over 13,000 tickets for unbagged mattresses — roughly 2,700 per year.
  • Remember when Philly banned being on your cell phone while driving in 2009? The policy led to more than 32,000 code violations in a single year — before a new statewide (and more lenient) cell phone policy overruled the initiative.

Stay tuned for more stories on tickets from Billy Penn. 

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Max Marin (he/him) was Billy Penn's investigative reporter from 2018 to 2021. A graduate of Temple University, he has produced award-winning journalism on local politics, criminal justice, immigration...