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Instead of Recovering Stolen Cars, San Francisco Tickets Them

Between May 1 and Sept. 17, over 2,000 vehicles were reported stolen to the city’s police department and, as of Sept. 26, the agency had ticketed 411 of those cars while they were still officially considered stolen.

Susan Ashton is fighting the ticket she got last month on San Francisco's Park Street for blocking a driveway. Same goes for Christy Gagan, who was written up a month before that on Turk Street for getting in the way of street sweeping. Neither woman can match Zoila Toruno, who is pushing back on each of the eight tickets she received in May on Stillman Street.

Why are they fighting the citations? The vehicles were stolen, then parked illegally by thieves.

Amid an alarming surge of auto theft in big cities across the country, San Francisco parking control officers are coming upon boosted vehicles all over the city. But they're not helping to recover them and return them to their owners. Instead, they're ticketing them — and at an eye-popping rate.

Between May 1 and Sept. 17, over 2,000 vehicles were reported stolen to the Police Department. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, or SFMTA, had, as of Sept. 26, ticketed 411 of those while they were still officially considered stolen, issuing fines totaling nearly $70,000, according to a Chronicle analysis of public records. Some vehicles were written up multiple times.

Some of these tickets may have been issued to cars after they were recovered, if the owner did not promptly alert police or if police did not report the recovery.

Still, the missed opportunities appear to represent a widespread practice. While some California cities, including San Diego, have parking officers help police identify and recover vehicles by running license plates to see if they've been reported stolen, many cities do not.

In San Francisco, the high-tech mecca, the low-tech phenomenon is frustrating many victims, who frequently resort to recovering their own cars by checking online for tickets.

That's how Gagan found her vehicle. On the night of Aug. 18, the schoolteacher's Infiniti SUV was taken from outside her West Portal-area home. While she reported the theft to police that Friday, she also visited the social network Nextdoor, where several posters suggested she plug her license plate into the SFMTA's website to check for tickets. By Monday, sure enough, there it was — ticketed in the Fillmore neighborhood, where thieves had apparently abandoned it.

Her husband drove to the vehicle and waited for the police, who told him not to touch it. When officers hadn't arrived an hour and a half later, he drove the car a few blocks to Northern Station. The vehicle was full of stolen property, credit cards, burglary tools and motorcycle parts — it looked like "a chop shop was set up inside my car," Gagan said — and had damage from several collisions.

"The concept that you need to rely on self-help to find your stolen car is nuts," said Inner Richmond neighborhood resident Susan Kostal, who discovered that her stolen Honda CR-V had been subsequently ticketed back in 2014. "Neither SFPD nor SFMTA seems concerned about finding cars and closing these cases. It's pretty clear it's a low priority for both agencies."

A San Francisco police spokesperson, Evan Sernoffsky, said vehicle thefts are a "huge priority" for the department, and touted its success in retrieving stolen vehicles. State data shows that, in 2022, about 83 percent of vehicles stolen in the city were recovered.

"We know that often, people steal vehicles and then they are used in crime," Sernoffsky said. "And it's incredibly disruptive to victims. People need to go to their job, pick their kids up from school and go about their daily lives."

Car owners reported more than 6,000 stolen vehicles to San Francisco police in both 2021 and 2022. This year, as of Oct. 1, car boosting was up 10 percent in the city. Statewide, more cars were stolen last year than any time since 2008.

Kias and Hyundais have become particularly popular targets after viral videos surfaced on sites like TikTok and YouTube encouraging viewers to exploit a loophole in the vehicles' machinery to steal them. Often, thieves ditch the car after taking it on a joyride — or they use the vehicles to commit other crimes, from car break-ins to drive-by shootings, making their swift recovery more important.

Critics argue San Francisco officials are missing easy chances to recover stolen and potentially dangerous vehicles, and wonder whether they are prioritizing ticket revenue. SFMTA employees issue more than 1 million parking and transit citations every year, generating roughly $90 million in revenue, according to the agency's website.

"It's a breadbasket for the city," said Kelli Mallen, who recounted using a street-cleaning ticket to try to locate her Nissan Versa after it was stolen in August. She disputed her ticket in September, but has yet to hear back.

"Even if they do forgive my ticket," she said, "my sympathy is with people who get multiple tickets and don't know they can check tickets to try to find their vehicle."

San Francisco parking officers could locate stolen cars, though it would require a technological fix that accounts for the fact that non-police agencies generally don't have direct access to law enforcement databases. City policy empowers the SFMTA to use license plate scanners to "identify vehicles that are the subject of an active investigation by the SFPD." But in practice, it doesn't happen.

"We have no specific policy regarding checking vehicles to see if they are stolen during the normal course of duties," an SFMTA spokesperson, Stephen Chun, said in an emailed statement.

This wasn't always the case. Fifteen years ago, SFMTA parking officers used handheld ticketing devices that included auto-theft information from a city crime database, the Chronicle reported at the time. The department no longer has that automated capability, Chun said.

Employees do check plates one-by-one, however, when a car is being towed, or when it appears to have been abandoned, Chun said. He said the department notifies police if parking officers become aware a car is stolen, but could not say how many times parking officers reported stolen vehicles to police. The SFMTA, he said, does not track that information.

The agency dismissed 23,603 of the 1,080,547 tickets it issued in 2022, but could not provide data on how many were cleared because the citations had been issued to stolen vehicles.

In San Diego, parking officers locate stolen cars using a system operated by a Milwaukee-based company, CivicSmart, that uploads data from state databases. The civilian parking officers either work under the umbrella of the police force or undergo more rigorous background checks allowing them to access sensitive information, said Laird Tucker, a senior parking enforcement supervisor for the Police Department.

Tucker said that when city employees enter a license plate number to issue a citation, the system automatically alerts them if the vehicle is stolen. Parking officers first attempt to notify the owner. If that's not possible, the city impounds the vehicle. The system helps officers return stolen vehicles to owners more promptly, he said, but it has other benefits.

"A lot of stolen vehicles are used to commit crimes, or used for other nefarious reasons," Tucker said. "When they're removed from the streets, it's a way to eliminate future use of a stolen vehicle in crime, and collect evidence."

The Chronicle found a number of Bay Area cities that don't avoid ticketing stolen cars, including Oakland, where residents are suffering through a record-setting year for auto theft. Michael Ford, a manager in the city's transportation department, said parking officers are civilians and thus don't have clearance to access the state Department of Justice's stolen-vehicle database.

Like in San Francisco, the department's abandoned auto division checks to see if vehicles are stolen before towing — and about 35 percent come back as boosted, Ford said.

Now, he said, the department is working with a private vendor to access the DMV's stolen-car database, which lists "DOJ stops" — which are almost always indicative of stolen vehicles, he said. And while a flood of new reports of stolen vehicles might stretch Oakland's resources, "that's a good problem, I think," he said.

In San Jose, the parking unit doesn't check every car to see if it's stolen, but is using license plate scanners in a pilot project to automatically flag boosted vehicles. The city hopes to expand the program within the next year, said Elias Khoury, a manager in the city's transportation agency.

"We envision eventually being able — for any citation we might issue — to flag if a vehicle is stolen or not," he said.

In San Francisco, car owners like Gagan and Toruno remain frustrated. Toruno, who is retired and lives in the Mission District, had her Toyota stolen in May. By the time police recovered it from Stillman Street, it had been ticketed eight times for blocking street-cleaning, parking on a grade and violating residential time limits. The interior was strewn with trash and empty beer cans.

Police, she said, gave her a report to take to SFMTA to get her tickets dismissed. She's still waiting to see what happens.

(c)2023 the San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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