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Scofflaws Manage to Wite-Out

Registration Requirements

By now, you know the drill. To park your car on the street for more than a few weeks, it has to be registered in the District. That means an inspection, which costs 10 bucks. A residential parking permit, which costs another 10 bucks. The registration fee itself varies, depending upon the car; 60 bucks seems to be a fair average. And there is a big hit in the form of a one-time excise tax based on the resale value of the car, its weight, and probably the phase of the moon. No matter what you factor in, it all adds up to big bucks. Unless you’re like Priscilla.

“I had just moved here,” says Priscilla (not her real name), recalling her arrival in 1990. “I was talking to somebody on the next barstool, and I was saying what a drag it was that my visitor’s parking permit had expired and I had to go downtown and register the car to get permanent parking.”

Priscilla’s new friend smiled and said, “Let me introduce you to guerilla parking, one of the secrets of D.C. Simply alter your temporary permit. Make the 2 a 12. Better yet, make the 2 a 22. All you need is a bottle of Wite-Out.”

Priscilla dutifully went to her neighborhood police substation and asked for a special parking permit.

“I’d brought what I was supposed to,” Priscilla says. “Proof of residence—in this case my apartment lease. My driver’s license. The car title.” The uniformed woman behind the counter had Priscilla put her name and address on a tiny file card; then she gave her a 5-by-8-inch white document to be placed conspicuously on her car’s dashboard. It contained the zone number in big bold letters and blanks for the car’s tag number and state, the date of issue and the expiration date—two weeks later, no longer—and the name of the issuing officer. The woman told Priscilla the temporary permit could be renewed, but only once, and only for two more weeks.

Priscilla estimates that at the end of the grace period she would have had to plunk down about $500 for her 1985 Japanese import, and everything but the excise tax would have to be paid year after year after year. She began a life of crime instead. She got a bottle of Bic Wite-Out—$1.29 at Staples—brushed out the issuing and expiration dates, and then wrote her own ticket. Again, again, and again.

When Priscilla came to town, the parking permit cards were white. Now they’re a pale blue. She remembers an interlude when they were “a sort of peachy-pink.” Her fellow scofflaw Tory says you have to stay nimble to stay out of a jam.

“If they change colors on you,” Tory says, “then it’s off to the police substation. If you’re afraid of being recognized, grab a friend with a lease and a license and send ’em in. This information isn’t stored on a computer that allows them to call up the information and see what a liar you are. There’s just a little box of cards.”

Registering your car in the District has some other costs as well. A D.C. insurance broker, who wishes to be identified as an “industry source,” says the overabundance of lawyers creates problems for people who want to insure a car with District tags.”A $500 premium can easily go to $750 or even $1000, if they don’t cancel you. Why? Each company will give you a different reason, but I can tell you it’s not so much high theft and vandalism numbers, it’s lawsuits. It’s all those people hopping out after fender benders screaming whiplash and hoping for a fat settlement.” No wonder Priscilla and a number of small-time graffiti artists have been quietly flouting the District’s registration laws for years.

Of course, their shenanigans are illegal—it says so right on the back of the permit, “Sale, transfer or other misuse of this permit is a violation subject to a maximum $300.00 fine and/or 10 days imprisonment.” Altering numbers with Wite-Out would seem to qualify as “misuse,” but the practice is not on the screen of those in charge of enforcing the law.

“No one in the districts I spoke with or in the fraud section has ever heard of it,” says Sgt. Joe Gentile of the Metropolitan Police Department’s Office of Public Information. “We’re not aware of any counterfeiting taking place at this time.”

Gwen Mitchell, administrator for the Transportation Systems Administration of the Department of Public Works, which distributes the permits to the police substations, says, “This has not so far been brought to our attention. But we ask our parking control agents to monitor anything that has been altered.”

Priscilla says that to be an effective lawbreaker it helps to be law-abiding.

“Make sure your car doesn’t attract official attention. If the sign says ‘No Parking,’ don’t park. If they threaten to ticket any car left in that spot after 7 in the morning, get out of bed at 6:30 and move it. And obey all the traffic laws. You don’t want them remembering your car.” CP