When Watertown, MA resident Mark Pickering received a parking citation during a visit to a friend in nearby Somerville, he figured a simple letter to the Office of the Parking Clerk would result in a scheduled hearing or a ticket dismissal. Instead, he received an anonymous note of rejection with an extra $5 fine. [See Mark's letter in the SJ : Parking ticket appeal system needs work]
Such anecdotes are not uncommon in Somerville where parking enforcement has been compared to extortion. To find out if there are trends in which types of ticket appeals get dismissed or upheld, I filed a public records request with the City through MuckRock.com and raised money to cover the costs on Spot.Us. I’ve posted my Excel spreadsheet of data and charts here.
To begin, let’s take a look at how many ticket appeals were submitted each month between July 1, 2009 to Feb 15, 2011. Then let’s break it down to look for trends :
In the next chart, we see that actually the success rate has fluctuated from a low of about 15% to a high around 45%.
There appears to be a seasonal trend with the dismissal rate dropping toward Winter and rising during Summer. Let’s see if that correlates with the type of appeals being made (limit to the top 5 violation types by count) :
Indeed, it appears that during the winter months, the proportion of permit parking appeals dropped while snow ticket appeals rose. Let’s see if these violation types actually have different rates of dismissal (success). Note, the following chart contains only the top 12 violation types.
It seems like maybe the violation types that are more likely to be dismissed have less to do with public safety. This might help explain why snow related ticket appeals, for example, might be upheld more often than permit parking ticket appeals.
Now, let’s take a look at whether the hearing officers review similar distributions of violations. (The numbers inside are counts of appeals of each of the top 5 violation types by count)
So the distributions of the violation types are roughly similar across the hearing officers. Then does it matter which hearing officer reviews your appeal? Apparently, it does:
Perhaps this can be explained by the distribution of the method of appeal seen by each officer. The data indicated whether the appeal was made online (Yes) or via mail/in-person (No).
Interestingly, it appears that lower proportions of online (Yes) appeals correlate with higher dismissal rates among the officers. But correlation does not imply causation, so we don’t know whether the officers who dismiss appeals more often do so because they get fewer online appeals, or perhaps that’s just a coincidence. It’s also unclear why certain officers end up reviewing higher or lower proportions of online appeals.
Actually, you’d be almost 11% less likely to succeed (get a dismissal) if you file online.
It’s not clear why this discrepancy exists, perhaps apologies/explanations in-person are more persuasive to the hearing officers, or maybe it’s just harder to look someone in the eye and tell them they still have to pay.
Since online appeals are less likely to succeed, then hopefully people have figured this out and will be filing online less often. Whoops, looks like filing online is becoming more popular:
Next, I graphed each officer’s dismissal rate over time :
DSHEPPARD seems to follow the seasonal pattern as does JVIVOLO to a lesser degree. Meanwhile, LMURPHY and SJONES both served only for a short while, but had extremely low or high dismissal rates that tracked the seasons. Oddly, DSUSI seems to be fairly consistent across the seasons.
The data doesn’t show what reason each appeal was made, but it does give the reasons why certain tickets were dismissed. Here’s the breakdown:
These reasons aren’t very clear, but it appears that the vast majority of dismissed tickets were done as a “courtesy”. Apologizing also seems to be a successful strategy sometimes.
In conclusion, your odds of successfully appealing a ticket correlate with the type of violation, the season, the hearing officer, and whether you file your appeal online or not.
See Andy Metzger’s response today Setting story straight on Somerville parking appeals on WickedLocal
Thanks to Traffic & Parking Director Matt Dias for his prompt and professional handling of my records request.
Thanks to Michael Morisy at MuckRock.com for helping to convert the PDF documents into spreadsheet format.
Thanks to David Cohn at Spot.Us for promoting this story and to all the micro-funders who chipped in.
Thanks to other Somerville Voices editors who provided some helpful feedback to me during my analysis.