Auto-correct: Police getting more serious with parking scofflaws

December 23rd, 2011 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

‘Tis the season to try to become better for a new year. Often it starts with little things, like squaring debts. The police in Miyagi Prefecture, however, are taking no chances. They’ve just announced a new strategy to force car owners with outstanding parking tickets to pay up: Cars that have been impounded as “abandoned” will be auctioned off on Yahoo.

Don't even think about it

As in most countries where automobiles are widely used, Japan struggles with the problem of where to put them when they aren’t in motion. In fact, given its perennial space difficulties, it’s probably more of a problem in Japan, which explains why parking violations are, administratively at least, on a par with moving violations. If you’re caught illegally parking it goes down on your driving record, which is not generally the case in most other developed countries. That said, people with parking tickets seem just as likely to blow them off because the police don’t always have the time or resources to pursue scofflaws.

Fines for illegal parking are ¥15,000 or ¥12,000 for a regular passenger car, depending on the place and how long the vehicle stays there. It’s more for large vans and trucks (¥21,000 and ¥15,000) and less for motorcycles (¥9,000 and ¥7,000), though not as much as it is for “stopping” in traffic. If the car is towed, the violator also has to pay for the towing fee (about ¥14,000 in Tokyo) and storage costs (whatever the garage or lot happens to charge). However, according to an article in the Tokyo Shimbun, often when people show up to claim their vehicle, the operators will release it to the person even if he or she doesn’t have the cash to pay. They simply send the person a bill, which few, it seems, end up paying.

Miyagi Prefecture has more than 2,200 cases of unpaid parking fines comprising more than ¥30 million, which isn’t a lot in the scheme of things but apparently many police departments at the local level rely on fines to subsidize certain police functions, especially with regards to traffic safety. All traffic fines nationwide are collected by the Bank of Japan, and twice a year these funds are divided up according to population and number of traffic accidents and sent back to the prefectural police departments.

Normally, when people don’t pay their fines, after a certain period police can receive authorization to go into their bank accounts and take the money directly, but that assumes the violators have savings to tap. Since they receive notice that their savings will be taken, violators may remove the money beforehand, and then the police are back where they started. The auction solution can only be used for cars that have been seized, which in most cases means they’re categorized as being abandoned — i.e., sitting for an extended period in one place. That doesn’t mean they’re permanently abandoned. The point is not so much to punish violators as it is to collect money. When the owner of the car learns that his property is being auctioned, it is hoped that he or she will come forward and pay the accumulated fines to get the car back. If that doesn’t happen then the car is listed on Yahoo’s auction site.

The reason the Miyagi police are using a commercial service like Yahoo! Auction is that selling cars by themselves would entail money and resources they don’t have. If the car is sold and the final price is less than the accumulated fines, the owner is still liable for the difference. If the final price is higher than the accumulated fines, the balance goes to the owner. This new program only started on Dec. 19, and so far, only two seized cars have been tagged for auction. The owner of one of them, a 36-year-old man, came forward and paid his fines of ¥37,800 and got the car back. The other is owned by a 65-year-old man with ¥78,100 in fines who has assured police that he will pay the fine “soon.”

This is the desired outcome. But some police departments are taking a more aggressive approach. According to the Mainichi Shimbun, starting in 2009 Saitama prefectural police have been arresting traffic scofflaws, including people whose only violations are illegal parking. In 2011 they arrested 27 people for not paying their traffic fines. One young man was fined ¥6,000 for riding his scooter 30 meters on a sidewalk. Unable to get him to pay, the police gave the case to a petty court which made five requests to the young man to show up, after which a warrant was issued for his arrest.

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