Jim Kenyon: A Number of Problems

Last week, I got a letter at home from the Montpelier Police Department. Since I hadn’t made a donation to the police benevolent association, I figured this wasn’t going to be a thank you note.

I figured right.

Montpelier police were reminding me that a parking ticket issued to a car registered in my name on July 15 hadn’t been paid. The city now wanted $16 from me to cover the ticket and late fee. In bold print, the letter stated,“Unpaid tickets may result in the vehicle being added to the scofflaw list and subsequent impoundment following notification to you.”

I understand why Montpelier would be strict on parking. Otherwise, all those state lawmakers and lobbyists might never leave.

The funny thing was I couldn’t recall getting the ticket. A check of my calendar showed that I wasn’t in the state capital on July 15. Then there was the Vermont license plate number referred to in the letter.

It wasn’t mine. It had been mine — until I swapped leased cars in January. With the new car came a new plate number.

On my third call to Montpelier police, I reached Michelle Amaral, who works in the parking division. Once a week, police run the plate numbers connected to overdue parking tickets through the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles’ database to come up with names and addresses of scofflaws, she explained.

Police could have entered an incorrect digit or letter, said Amaral. In writing tickets, parking cops punch license plate numbers into their hand-help computers.

“It could have been operator error; we make mistakes, too,” she said.

That’s one possible explanation.

Amaral told me not to worry about the ticket. But it dawned on me that this situation had the potential to morph from being an annoying inconvenience to something serious.

Hartford Deputy Police Chief Brad Vail was kind enough to check DMV’s database for me on Monday. When he ran my former plate number, although it had expired July 31, my name and address still popped up.

My previous car with that plate number was a gray Toyota. The Montpelier parking cop who issued the ticket, however, wrote down that the car with that plate was a black Honda.

Could someone be driving around in a car with my old license plate number? And what if that car was reported to be involved in a bank robbery or terrorist act?

I had visions of a state police SWAT team breaking down my front door at 3 in the morning, and we all know these incidents often end badly.

Law-and-order types are fond of saying that if you haven’t done anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about.

But what if a wrong license plate number gets entered into a police database? Or a government worker forgets to remove a former car owner’s name and address from a computer system?

In Vermont, more than 30 law enforcement agencies deploy cruisers with automatic license plate recognition scanning systems that can read 1,800 tags a minute. Information on the car, including when and where its license plate number was scanned by police, is sent to a federal fusion center, where it’s stored for years. (The feds have built information and analysis centers in every state.)

Three years ago, Hartford cops used a Homeland Security grant to buy a couple “Mobile Plate Hunters,” which cost about $20,000 apiece. When the computerized systems find a vehicle on a police “hot list,” an alarm goes off inside the cruiser.

A few times, it’s been a false alarm, Vail told me. After pulling over a car, Hartford officers have discovered that a clerical error was responsible for the vehicle being on the wanted list, which can include such minor infractions as a lapsed registration or unpaid parking tickets. “Human error can still alter the system,” said Vail.

Now back to my license plate number snafu.

Amaral, the Montpelier parking officer, recommended that I call the state motor vehicles department. Ryan McClaren, the DMV’s No. 2 official, said he’d look into the matter to “figure out what happened.” Or as I put it, what went wrong.

I also stopped by the dealership, White River Toyota, where I traded my old leased vehicle for a new one in January. A manager explained that license plates on trade-ins are removed and placed in a private office. Every month, the dealership, like others across the state, boxes up dozens of old license plates and ships them to Vermont DMV.

Plate numbers are not re-used, said McClaren. I guess that eliminates the possibility that my old number was given to someone else without the change being recorded in the DMV database.

But it still doesn’t explain how a Montpelier parking cop could have ticketed a black Honda with my former license plate number, unless he entered the wrong number. Or why the plate number remains in the DMV database under my name, seven months after I stopped using it.

The DMV will talk with White River Toyota to try to figure out what happened to my old license plate and whether it could still be in circulation, said McClaren. “It was probably an honest mistake, but we want to maintain the integrity of the system,” he said.

While they’re at it, DMV officials might want to check around its own offices.

When the car was ticketed for an expired meter, it was parked on the same street as DMV headquarters.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at Jim.Kenyon@valley.net.