Stolen tags, even after reported to police, rack up tickets for innocent drivers

By Daniel Leaderman
The Gazette
Thursday, February 3, 2011; T15

For Carlo Parcelli, having his license plates stolen was bad enough. But soon he was receiving tickets for vehicular violations he hadn't committed.

Because of speed and red-light cameras, victims of theft can face the repeated inconvenience of contesting traffic citations even after they file a police report.

"It's like I have to do my own police work," Parcelli said.

Parcelli, a former bookstore owner who now sells books via the Internet from his Hyattsville home, said he noticed the license plates from his Honda Accord were missing Dec. 30. He reported it to the Hyattsville police that day and the following week received new plates from the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration.

Since then, he has received two citations for violations he could not have committed. The citations, dated Jan. 3 and Jan. 12, are from the Mount Rainier Police Department, which has a speed camera on Rhode Island Avenue. The citations show a Honda bearing the stolen tags.

For each citation, Parcelli had to take a copy of the police report he filed in Hyattsville to the Mount Rainier Police Department to have them voided.

Mount Rainier Police Chief Michael Scott said current speed camera technology leaves people facing a situation like Parcelli's with no alternative but to challenge each citation received.

"We haven't reached a point in the technology yet where we can link the speed cameras to the . . . stolen vehicle databases," Scott said. "We void those citations out, that's not a problem. . . . It may be a hassle for the owner, but unfortunately, that's what we have at the present time."

At least two people examine citations before they are sent out, Scott said. A technician from the vendor that operates the cameras removes any citations that can't be issued, such as those where the license plate number cannot be identified. Then a Mount Rainier police officer examines the remaining citations to verify the car's speed warrants a violation.

However, with the city issuing about 400 citations daily, Scott said, the department doesn't have the time or resources to check every ticket against the stolen vehicle database.

Scott added that voiding violations because of stolen tags is not common.

"If we got 10 in a year, that would be high," Scott said.

Scott said there did not seem to be any indication that tags were being stolen to avoid camera citations. "In general, tags are stolen to cover up other crimes," he said, adding that a stolen tag matched with a stolen car could allow a thief to drive it longer before being detected.

Mount Rainier's speed camera is run by Lanham-based Optotraffic, which also operates the speed cameras for Brentwood, Riverdale Park and College Park.

Mario Bohorquez, Optotraffic's chief commercial officer, said someone who has received a citation after having their tags stolen should immediately contact the jurisdiction that issued the ticket. He could not be reached for further comment.

Voided citations because of theft are rare in Brentwood, said Karina Cruz, administrative assistant for the Brentwood Police Department.

"Maybe once a month," she said.

But Parcelli said this system has saddled him with an unfair presumption of guilt.

"The burden of proving my innocence was all on me," Parcelli said. "You shouldn't have these complex systems . . . when all the safeguards are not in place."

The number of such incidents might not be large, but citations received because of stolen tags are a kind of identity theft, said Ron Ely, editor of the anti-speed-camera Web site

"An innocent person ends up suffering the consequences for a person who is likely a criminal," Ely said. "The people who do this are . . . probably doing it to hide from police."

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