A PPA parking ticket on a car windshield. (Danya Henninger/Billy Penn)

Daryl James is a writer at the Institute for Justice in Arlington, Virginia.

Fines and fees mount quickly when the Philadelphia Parking Authority comes after someone’s car. So Sherri Robinson rushed to scrape together as much cash as she could on April 29 after the agency booted and towed her 2004 Audi.

Robinson had parked legally in front of her North Philly rowhome, near Temple University, but the PPA decided to use the vehicle as leverage to force payment for old tickets. Robinson did not dispute the citations themselves — just the unreasonable penalties. She could not afford to pay what the PPA demanded, but hoped to make a down payment and negotiate the release of her Audi before costs climbed even more.

When she showed up at the adjudication center on the corner of Filbert and 9th streets with $600, a city worker refused the money and sent her away. Robinson’s tab had swelled to more than $2,000, and the PPA demanded at least half up front, regardless of her ability to pay.

By the time Robinson returned to the payment window five days later with additional funds, her bill had climbed an additional $125 due to PPA’s aggressive penalty system.

Late fees can double and then triple the cost of a regular parking ticket. The boot fee adds another $150, followed by $175 for towing and $25 per day plus tax for storage. If families cannot pay, the city can sell their sole means of transportation at auction.

Other penalties include vehicle registration suspension and even threats of arrest. Essentially, the scheme criminalizes poverty.

Philadelphia leaders signed onto a promise of “bold reform” with “cutting-edge policies” to end unjust fines and fees last May, when the city joined a coalition of 10 municipalities committed to “dismantling oppressive systems.” Although participating jurisdictions vowed to look at more than just parking enforcement, fixing the PPA should have been high on the list in Philadelphia.

One year later, the only result has been talk. Coalition members identified five priority areas, including the need to reduce parking fines and towing fees, and implementing more just payment plans. Yet the PPA has not budged on either of these things.

Excessive sanctions for petty violations continue, and the PPA refuses to match penalties with a person’s ability to pay. Robinson described her struggle while standing outside the adjudication center on her second visit.

When her turn finally came to enter, she handed over $1,139.75 — exactly half her debt. The rest she will pay in monthly installments over the next two years. In exchange, the PPA agreed to release her car.

Robinson seemed relieved, but her mood soured when she arrived at PPA Lot 7 in Bridesburg and found her Audi damaged. “This car wasn’t like this when they took it,” she said. “Half the bumper is hanging off now.”

Others waiting for PPA service on May 4 shared their own frustrations. One mother said she had driven three hours to Philadelphia with her young daughter, a cancer patient who needed chemotherapy. When they came out of the treatment center, their car was gone.

Another woman described having her car towed when she went with her toddler to family court. She thought she had parked legally in a two-hour zone, but was unsure. “The signs are confusing,” she said. “They don’t even know what they mean by their signs.” When she came outside, her car was gone.

A man who recently moved from Albany, New York, said he understood the signs — but got confused by the payment kiosks. While he was trying to figure out which machine to use, he got a ticket.

Philadelphia is not alone in having this kind of rampant ticketing and penalty assessment. Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., all use aggressive tactics to maximize parking revenue.

The American Bar Association calls such enforcement “regressive” because it disproportionately penalizes families with lower incomes and people of color. Will Aronin, a public interest attorney at the Institute for Justice, says the money-making schemes are also unconstitutional.

Aronin says the Philadelphia Parking Authority, which is governed by a state-appointed board,  violates the Fourth Amendment guarantee against unreasonable search and seizure when it takes cars without warrants. He believes it violates the Eighth Amendment guarantee against excessive fines when it runs up penalties for minor violations, and that it violates the 14th Amendment guarantee of due process when it fails to provide protections for vehicle owners or to consider their ability to pay.

The Institute for Justice represented one Indiana man who lost his Land Rover following a first-time, nonviolent drug crime. He took his case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and eventually got his vehicle back in 2020.

Now the Institute for Justice is turning its attention to Philadelphia, looking for clients to send a message: Cities have legitimate reasons to enforce parking rules, but the government must stop treating people like ATMs.

Daryl James is a writer at the Institute for Justice in Arlington, Virginia.