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Boot or tow, the pain's the same

Is there a more noticeable scarlet letter than the Denver boot? Everyone pays a parking ticket late from time to time, but to be so far in arrears that authorities immobilize your car with a clunky steel vise, for all to gawk or snicker at? What a drag.

I always thought you had to rack up dozens of unpaid parking tickets to earn a boot, but in Boston, you get booted after just five. Same goes for Cambridge, among other places.

This week, we close out what has been a very rich topic with installment No. 4 of our parking ticket survival guide. Best of luck - and feed that meter!

Getting the boot

Most of us call the wheel clamps Denver boots, but that's actually a trademarked name, like Kleenex. Boston purchases its clamps from a competing manufacturer, but rest assured, they work just as well.

As stated, if you accrue five outstanding parking tickets in Boston (tickets from other cities don't count), you're officially a target.

"The boot and tow crews have lists of these vehicles that are boot eligible, as they call them," said Tracey Ganiatsos, spokeswoman for the city's Transportation Department. "They also have records of where the people received these parking tickets. A lot of times people will go back to the same spot - they live in the same area, they work in that area. If there's a car that's boot eligible, they can boot it."

Interestingly, your average parking officer does not know how many tickets you've accrued, as they aren't equipped with lists. Only the official Tow and Hold unit of the Transportation Department has that information.

To get a boot removed you must, of course, pay your fines, plus a $56 removal fee and any storage charges.

Not all communities boot, it should be noted.

"The law says you can tow or boot - immobilize it says - after five or more outstanding parking tickets," said Sergeant Larry Fitzgerald, with Brookline's traffic unit, paraphrasing Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 90, Section 20A. Brookline, by the way, is a tow-only town.

I had to ask what would happen if you tried to drive a car with a mechanical boot.

"The metal of the boot is pretty heavy. It will chew up the wheel well and cause some tire and wheel damage. But you can break the boot off," said Liz Wolfson, spokeswoman for Clancy Systems International Inc., manufacturer of the Denver boot.

"But when you drive with a boot and you destroy it, you're destroying city property, and now you've got a criminal charge against you. It's a dumb thing to do, but people do it."

Getting towed

If your parking meter expires, you'll get a ticket. But what if you leave your car in a bus stop? Will you get a ticket - or will you get towed?

Unfortunately, there's no sure way to tell.

Some communities tow for certain offenses, some don't. Even within a community, the decision may rest with the police officer on the scene.

While municipalities often post tow warnings, signs are rarely comprehensive.

"There is no hard and fast list" of which violations will get you towed, said Ganiatsos. "It is generally those that impinge upon public safety - e.g., hydrant, crosswalk, fire lane, no stopping/standing, double parking, etc. However, we also will tow for violations that work to improve quality of life in the neighborhoods, such as street cleaning and sometimes even resident parking, as we have done in the Fenway/Kenmore area this summer."

In Brookline, you'll get towed if you fail to leave at least 10 feet for a passing lane. You can get towed if you park in a handicapped space, park in front of a driveway (though not your own), or within 20 feet of an intersection.

"Everyone complains that there's no sign that says you can't park near a corner. You don't need one. It's the law," said Fitzgerald.

Grounds for appeal

What if there's a mistake on your ticket?

Reader Brett Bersson from the North End wrote in recently with this terrific question.

"I recently received a parking ticket for illegal parking while on a side street in the North End. The parking official wrote the wrong street name on the ticket. Can I fight it?"

The short answer is, anyone can appeal a ticket. Unfortunately, tickets that contain mistakes aren't automatically dismissed.

"If the license plate number is incorrect, and the license plate doesn't match the vehicle they own, we'll dismiss it. That could be a data entry mistake," said James Mansfield, with Boston's Transportation Department. "If the ticket says one street and the police officer says another street, they may have to come in for a hearing. They would have to prove they were on a different street. Not that I'm a cynic, but sometimes people will say they were parked somewhere else to get the ticket waived."

Watertown's traffic chief, Sergeant Joseph Deignan, agrees that you'd have to present some proof - photos, testimonials, eyewitnesses can help - that you didn't do anything wrong.

"Let's say the violation is parking within 10 feet of a fire hydrant, and there's no fire hydrant on 9th Street. I'd say you've got a good chance of winning," he said. "But if the ticket is for Hanover Street, well, you've got a lot of hydrants there."

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