In 1993, Sam Hodge pulled his maroon Caddy into an open parking space at Second and Market Streets, and spotted a clear plastic bag tied over the meter. Aha, a freebie! he thought. Fifteen minutes later, he returned to find a young Philadelphia Parking Authority officer writing a $15 ticket.
"'You can't get me like this, man!'" Hodge recalled shouting, his anger nearly boiling into violence. "I almost went to jail."
He appealed the ticket by mail, arguing that the meter was broken and he should have had at least a two-hour window to move his car. The PPA wasn't buying it and sent him a letter saying so. He threw it away.
Over a couple of decades of interest, his ticket ballooned to $53.
Recently, Hodge, now 74, got something cheerier in the mail, an invitation to make cut-rate amends. So one day last week, the retired corrections officer and school policeman from Nicetown headed to PPA's Center City office to sign up for a limited-time amnesty program for scofflaws. He wound up paying a flat $50 administrative fee, a savings of $3, to clear his record, and his conscience.
"This one particular ticket, I vowed never to pay. Well, I paid it today," Hodge said. "I had that ticket on my breast, on my heart, for 25 years. I've made my peace."
Hodge was among 2,647 supplicants who by the end of last week had gone to Ninth and Filbert Streets to be forgiven of their parking sins through the PPA's amnesty program. It started March 1 and runs until April 30.
To be clear, no one gets off scot-free, and some could walk out quite a bit lighter in the pocket than when they went in. If outstanding tickets are for parking violations prior to 2013, they can most likely be wrapped up with a $50 administrative fee. However, to qualify for amnesty, the driver must first pay off all tickets incurred between Jan. 1, 2013, and Dec. 31, 2017. The program does not cover traffic or moving violations.
Outstanding towing and storage fees dating before 2015 also can be pared down. Offenders are required to pay 30 percent of the total amount due, and the rest will be forgiven.
A recent audit of the agency found it was owed $76.8 million in uncollected parking fines since 2012. According to Mike Dunn, a spokesman for Mayor Kenney, the amnesty offer — the first of its kind for the PPA — had collected almost $155,000 as of last week.
The program was the result of a City Council bill introduced by Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell in 2016 and passed in December. She championed it after residents complained about an aggressive PPA crackdown on scofflaws, in which they were getting nabbed for tickets going back as far as 20 years and slapped with sky-high penalties they couldn't pay.
The amnesty program has received mixed reviews from the offenders.
"It went great. Fifty bucks and I'm done," said Carl Lake Sr., who had been harboring about a half-dozen parking tickets from 1997 and 1998. Paying them in full would have cost him more than $300.
"Here's the whole thing. I'm not from Philly, I live in Norristown," he said. "And I don't come down here like that. But a buddy of mine, I lent him my car one time, and he lived in West Philly. I'm going, like, 'Had to be him.'"
Joe Janda, 51, of Cherry Hill, got the PPA's announcement in the mail, but hasn't gone downtown yet. When he does, he said, he plans to fight. The Parking Authority has been billing him for two tickets that he paid 20 years ago, he said. The interest alone has soared past $100.
"I've heard that there's no statute of limitations on a parking ticket," he said. "But there should be."
LeVon Wadley of Chester used the amnesty program to dispense with a 1991 ticket, even though he contended it was "bogus."
"I've had hundreds in tickets, and I pay all of them," he said. This one "had the wrong address on there and everything."
He added: "I didn't know the city needed money that bad."
The PPA amnesty office was packed last week, as offenders formed a long line that would take them before two officials inside a cubicle. There was time enough to trade stories.
"Demographically, they all look like me in there," said Hodge, who is African American. "Half of the people in line couldn't afford the $50 fine, [but] they need their driving privileges to maintain employment."
Hodge said the program confused him initially. He read the word amnesty as forgiveness — in other words, free. That's what reeled him in, he said, noting that he likely wasn't the only one.