CYCLE OF RAGE: The Human Cost of ‘Criminal Mischief’

The plate clearly ends in 0, but this driver got a ticket because a driver covered the 8 on his plate so that it looked like a 0.
The plate clearly ends in 0, but this driver got a ticket because a driver covered the 8 on his plate so that it looked like a 0.

Don’t tell these people that plate defacing is a victimless crime.

The other day, a prominent New York reporter whom I know received a summons in the mail saying that a city speed camera had caught his car moving 41 miles per hour in a school zone in December.

Except it wasn’t his car, a silver Hyundai. The picture on the summons clearly showed a black Honda. And a zoomed-in photo also provided by the city showed that the black Honda’s plate had a piece of tape covering one of the numbers.

Instead of reading KUT2828, the plate on the reckless driver’s black Honda appeared to city cameras as KUT2820 — the same plate that’s screwed onto the back of my friend’s silver Hyundai. So my friend pleaded not guilty and challenge the ticket. The city’s response? It added $25 in late fees and now he’s being charged $75.

“Believe me, I’m no angel, I have received a speed camera ticket once before, but in this case, I won’t pay for someone else’s crime,” my friend said.

The summons shows a dark car with a defaced plate.
The summons shows a dark car with a defaced plate. Click to enlarge. You won’t regret it.

It’s worse than just a simple processing error — and it’s one of the reasons I’ve waged my personal crusade of “criminal mischief” to rid the city of defaced, covered or even foliated plates. It’s also why I wrote the hit song about my friend Adam White’s arrest for un-defacing a defaced plate.

See, the car with the license plate KUT2828 has been slapped with a whopping 27 camera-issued speeding tickets since just April 2020, city records show. And the tickets were issued regularly, several times per month, which raises some questions:

  • Can city speed cameras sometimes see through the ruse of a slightly covered plate?
  • And are the people who review the photos fully up to the task of holding the reckless drivers accountable … and leaving people like my friend alone?

“The system is obviously flawed,” my friend said. “People are trying to beat the system, and succeeding. This individual whose ticket I received received summonses in the past and found a way to evade them by altering his plate. I’m sure he doesn’t care who received the violation, as long as it wasn’t him.

“If the system worked, then the person reviewing the photos would realize the plate was altered and would not pass along the fine in a haphazard way to me,” he added.

(I reached out to the Department of Finance, which administers the tickets, and the Department of Transportation, which issues them, but neither agency responded.)

Stacy Sack's red Honda Fit is not the silver/gray Honda that sped past a city speed camera.
Stacy Sack’s red Honda Fit is not the silver/gray Honda that sped past a city speed camera.

My reporter friend isn’t the only person with a problem with how the city’s system works. Massachusetts resident Stacey Sacks was in Brooklyn this summer and started receiving camera violation tickets upon her return to the Bay State.

Like my reporter friend, she looked closely at the summonses — and the plate that was caught on camera was on an entirely different car. Sacks has a red Honda Fit (see picture below) and the camera caught a silver-gray Honda (not a Fit), see picture, right.

So what happened? Unbeknownst to her, Sacks’s front plate had been stolen — this is verifiable from the police report she and her daughter later filed — and then installed on the back of that silver Honda spotted on camera. When the tickets started being issued, they obviously were sent to Sacks’s address, not the scammer’s.

“My car was only in Brooklyn for the summer and I didn’t notice that the plate was missing until I started getting these summonses,” Sacks told me. “I said to my daughter, ‘Go outside and check the plate,’ and sure enough, it was missing.”

The good news is that Sacks fought five of the speeding violation tickets and four were dismissed. But hundreds of dollars in parking tickets and fines haven’t been dismissed — nor was a fifth speeding ticket, which was oddly omitted from the decision dismissing the four tickets even though Sacks made the same argument at the same time.

“It’s like the traffic court doesn’t believe me because there are so many people scamming the system — but I am truly the victim here,” Sacks told me. She’s back in Massachusetts and only wishes someone would clear it all up.

“The issue isn’t that the plate was stolen, which is a dick move, but that no one will help me with this,” she said. “Why can’t I just get on the phone with someone and resolve this? I’m four hours away. I have to appeal each of these one by one. And judges rule differently even when I say the same thing.”

Stacy Sacks with her red Honda Fit. Note: This is NOT the speeding car in the picture from the Department of Finance.
Stacy Sacks with her red Honda Fit. Note: This is NOT the speeding car in the picture above from the Department of Finance.

The good news is that the tickets stopped arriving once she got new plates from Massachusetts — though she doesn’t know why. She also doesn’t know why New Yorkers are such scammers.

“He got nine camera tickets in a month. It’s kind of crazy how many tickets this one driver racked up in just a few months,” she said.

No, it’s not. In all my “heroic” work covering defaced plates and reckless driving, I’ve noticed in any 12-month period, tens of thousands of drivers rack up 15 or more speeding tickets and/or five or more red-light tickets, which makes Sacks’s scammer par for this very dangerous course. I also reported earlier this week that after last year’s speed camera expansion in August, nearly 7.4 percent of plates could not be read by the DOT — which cost the city tens of millions in lost revenue and a decrease in safety that you cannot put a price on. Reminder: Last year, 16 kids were killed on New York City streets.

The public, at least, is noticing. Every day, my inbox is filled with people tell me about some defaced or leaf-covered plate. And my reporter friend, who used to spend a lot of time making fun of Streetsblog’s laser focus on reckless driving, is now far more aware of the challenges to reducing the horrifying reality that last year, 49,456 people were injured in crashes — roughly 185 injuries per day

“If everyone just drove the speed limit, which is not an unrealistic expectation, then maybe we wouldn’t need speed cameras,” he said. “There is a need for a safe speed. I do believe it saves lives. We all have a responsibility and driving is a privilege.”

Gersh Kuntzman is editor of Streetsblog. He writes the Cycle of Rage column periodically. All of those are archived here. All of Jimmy and the Jaywalkers’ songs, including “Criminal Mischief,” can be accessed on Spotify or YouTube.