License Plate Zappers: What Could Go Wrong with Pay Parking this Summer?

Dan Rattiner

This summer, the villages of East Hampton, Sag Harbor and perhaps soon Southampton are putting in paid parking in downtown lots. There won’t be parking meters, though. Instead, you’ll pay on your cell phone. You pull into a parking space, whip out your phone, tap an app, and buy the number of hours you want in the spot you’ve just parked in. Later, if you see you are about to go over the time, you don’t have to run out to your car. Just tap the app again and buy another hour. They charge your credit card.

Prices will vary from village to village, but basically it will cost about two bucks for up to three hours. There will be a maximum number of hours you can buy. And if you don’t choose to use the app, you can dial a phone number and pay that way. Small signs in the downtowns will tell you the number to call. But there’s something wrong with this. How can you call if you don’t own a phone? I’m not aware of any payphones downtown anymore.

It will also matter where you come from. In East Hampton, if you live in the village, you park free. If you live in the Town of East Hampton — Amagansett, Wainscott, Montauk and Springs, where I live — you get 3 hours free. But if you live anywhere else, from Kalamazoo to Timbuktu, you pay from the get-go.

Police officers will be driving by using license plate zappers to see where you are from. The information goes immediately up to a database in Albany. And a message comes back down giving them the info. Then they know what to do: A ticket. Or a tow.

As you can see, this parking program raises all sorts of questions. But you can get all the answers if you google the company that the villages are working with. The company is called ParkMobile. Everything is covered. They’ve done this before in other places.  They’ve got all the answers.

On the other hand, there’s what happened to my wife and me in East Hampton one cold day in April years ago when the police first began using license plate zappers to ticket cars.

We’d parked our Chevy Tahoe by the curb in front of Citarella market right smack in the center of town and were off to do a little shopping. We were in a two-hour parking zone so we were aware of the time. No parking police chalking tires would get us. But coming out of Citarella carrying our shopping bags — we’d saved that for last because we were getting perishable items from there — we were astonished to see three police cars with flashing lights blocking our car. One was in the front, another in the back, a third one double parked alongside. Standing by were officers in full regalia. One was even directing traffic around the police car blocking the lane, so traffic on Main Street was backing up. Our Tahoe was trapped! And inside, our sheepdog Moo had his head halfway out the down window, wagging his tail happily. This was exciting!

I had my key out. One of the officers stepped in front of me.

“Don’t go near it,” he said.

“Is there something wrong?”

“Yes. We’re towing it away.”

I started to think. First thought was, what, a bomb? But that couldn’t be. What else? Inside the SUV I had up-to-date inspection, registration, and insurance cards available. I asked an officer what was wrong. He said they were expecting information from Albany.

The next three minutes were taken up with me stupidly saying there was no reason to tow my car and him saying yes there was, over and over.

“Stay on the curb,” he said, pointing. We set down the grocery bags. And I looked at the passenger door.

Can I get my dog?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “Just wait.”

I tried again and the officer, after consulting with another officer, said okay, but only if I got him out from the passenger side.

“If you go in on the driver’s side,” he continued, “we’ll have you arrested.”

So I got my sheepdog. Now we were three, plus four soon-to-be-leaking shopping bags, on the curb.

Finally the word came down. Albany’s information was that when I’d bought the car two years earlier and transferred the plates from my trade-in, the insurance company failed to transfer the insurance properly. There was a two-day gap during which time I was driving around in the new car without insurance.

“We tow away cars that have insurance lapses,” he said. “Yours is the third today.”

With that, a tow truck arrived and jacked up my Tahoe on its hind legs.

“Everybody move along,” the officer said, motioning to people who had gathered. “It’s all over.”

And with that, our Tahoe sailed off into the sunset.

For awhile, we stood there, my wife and I and our dog and our four shopping bags, and finally I got the bright idea to call a cab.

It took two weeks and $437 to get the truck back. There was the uninsured vehicle ticket to pay, the tow truck to pay, the impound area on Springs Fireplace Road to pay, the insurance paperwork redone retroactively to pay for the gap, and the clerk at the police station to present all those documents to. All because an insurance person had mistakenly written a two instead of a four on one of the long-ago documents.

Anyway, that’s what can happen when things go wrong with license plate zappers and the police department.

Here’s another perk when you use the app. You can use it to reserve and pay for a particular parking space downtown for a particular time period even before you leave home. How about that! Though what happens if somebody is in that spot you’ve paid for when you get there for your time?

Yes, ParkMobile surely has a workaround for that. Yes, they have.     

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