Saturday, February 24, 2007

BALTIMORE - Three unpaid parking tickets cost Kelly Watson her Ford truck. When Watson, 32, of Columbia, went to retrieve her 1999 Ford F-250, the city had auctioned it off. A vehicle, with an estimated Kelly Blue Book value of $6,700, sold for $2,500. Somebody got a great steal. And it sure wasn’t Watson.

“I’m still in shock,” she told The Examiner. “I can’t believe I lost my car for a couple of parking tickets.”

Watson parked her car in front of a friend’s house in West Baltimore on Sept. 26, 2006. Four hours later, she said, it vanished.

Believing the F-250 was stolen, Watson called Baltimore Police Department. After filling out a report and checking the impound lots, police promised to call if the car turned up.

After a month of checking with the city, Watson finally received a call, but not from the police.

“Someone called on my cell phone and asked me if I wanted to buy my car back for $3,000,” she said. “I was like, how did you get my cell phone number?”

It gets worse. Watson found out that, despite the stolen-car report, the city had towed her truck to its impound lot on Pulaski Highway for three unpaid parking tickets that totaled $574 in fines.

That’s the city’s policy. Three tickets, and your car is towed. When she complained, city officials cited a certified letter receipt signed by her. They say Watson knew the car was there. Watson says she never signed anything.

“I told them it wasn’t my signature, I never received the letter,” she said.

The United States Postal Service agreed. In a letter sent to Watson’s attorney, Peter Semel, the U.S. Post Office admitted that the certified letter receipt was in fact forged.

“Sometimes a carrier signs it as a favor, so the person doesn’t have to pick it up at the post office,” said U.S. Postal Attorney William Neel.

Still, the Postal Service won’t take responsibility for her loss. Not their problem, they say.

Adrienne Barnes, spokeswoman for the Department of Transportation, said the city was simply following procedures.

“City law gives us authorization to dispose of a vehicle within 45 days,” she said. “We take steps to notify the owner. After the allotted time, the vehicle becomes a safety hazard.”

City Councilman Jack Young, District 12, doesn’t see it that way. And he’s looking forward to a showdown with DOT officials March 1 at a hearing on his resolution that calls for city officials to explain why cars are sold so quickly.

“We can’t just sell people’s cars because we can’t get in touch with them.” he said. “It’s a lame excuse. We should use whatever means necessary to contact people.”

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