Private company accused of handing out parking tickets at unlicensed Charleston lot
CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - A company handed out its own parking citations at a downtown Charleston lot, instructing drivers that they needed to pay up for committing an offense. Now, following an inquiry from Live 5 Investigates, city officials are warning that if the parking operation returns without the green light, the company could be the one that will be facing fines.
“You are currently operating a private parking business without a license or the requisite approvals from the City,” Charleston municipal attorney Julia Copeland wrote to Parking Management Company on Nov. 23. “This operation must cease immediately or you will be subject to fines and penalties.”
From exploring the aquarium to finding a $20 fine
Located at 7 Calhoun Street at the corner of Concord Street, the lot in question is a vacant property near the South Carolina Aquarium and the ferry to Fort Sumter National Monument.
Eric Johnston said that he parked there three times recently to take his son to the aquarium, but did not know that doing so would come at a cost.
“I thought that this parking lot would be a good place to park,” Johnston said, explaining how difficult it can be to find a spot on the peninsula’s narrow and congested streets. “I saw everybody parking here.”
Johnston says he had no issues with parking at the unpaved lot the first two times, but when he returned to his car after his third visit to the aquarium on Nov. 10, he found a surprise on his windshield.
“[I] got here and had a parking ticket,” Johnston said. “I thought [it] was an actual Charleston city parking ticket and when I looked at it closer, it wasn’t. I was kind of suspicious because the mailing address to mail back a check was a Tennessee address.”
The envelope containing “PMC - Charleston Parking Violation” included PMC’s name, the location of the company’s Nashville office, and a link for submitting disputes.
“I’m pretty sure that whoever is on the other side of that email address is not a judge,” Johnston said.
The ticket contained a barcode and QR code, noting that the driver would owe $20 for the “offense” of “non-payment” if payment was made within 10 days. The cost would jump to $25 if payment was made after 10 days and $70 if payment was submitted after 30 days.
Johnston reached out to Live 5 Investigates wondering whether he needed to pay a ticket that was issued by a private company, not the Charleston Parking Enforcement Division.
Private parking tickets: Pay up or ignore?
Unlike in other cities and states, there are no ordinances in Charleston or laws in South Carolina that pertain to businesses issuing their own parking citations.
“We are not aware of a provision of law which would allow a private landowner to create a novel parking ticket that would vest any court with comparable jurisdiction,” South Carolina Attorney General’s Office Communications Director Robert Kittle said in part.
“Of course, South Carolina law expressly provides that a private landowner can have unauthorized vehicles towed away from their private property,” Kittle noted, citing legislation that bans people from parking on non-public land without approval.
If you end up parking on private property and receive a parking ticket that is issued by a business, do you have to pay? In South Carolina, the answer is unclear.
“The problem is that they’re mimicking what the state and the municipalities are doing in writing their parking violation tickets,” Michelle Hubrich, a lawyer based in Summerville, said.
Hubrich says citations like these are more like invoices than traditional tickets, making them “kind of unenforceable.”
“It’s not illegal,” Hubrich said. “Should you pay it? If you knew you were supposed to pay to park in that lot, you probably should pay it if it’s a reasonable fee. If it’s what you would have paid anyhow to park there, you probably need to pay it. Now what happens if you don’t pay, that’s another question.”
Companies are allowed to report people who do not pay their violation fee to credit agencies and debt collection services, according to Hubrich, but those drivers can order debt collectors to stop contacting them.
Hubrich said that due to the 2017 National Consumer Assistance Plan, which prevents debts that were not accrued through contracts from appearing on credit reports, “if you don’t pay that invoice, they really have no avenue to pursue you paying that parking ticket because it’s not going to be reported on your credit report now.”
“If they don’t go to a debt collection agency and they really want your $20 parking fee, they can sue you … in small claims court and then that’s when they get an enforceable court order,” Hubrich added. “They’re not going to do it because they’ve got to pay to go to small claims court and really that $20 parking fee is not worth it to them.”
From charging for parking to receiving a cease and desist letter
After Johnston reached out about the citation that he received at 7 Calhoun Street, Live 5 Investigates visited the lot on Nov. 17. At the time, a handful of small signs containing the PMC logo that faced the interior of the property were visible, warning that payment could only be made by text.
One of the signs read “Public Parking Paid Lot,” noting that “violators are subject to ticketing and towing.”
“Individuals who do not pay the posted parking will be deemed trespassers,” another sign said. “Payments for violation or [sic] operator’s parking rules are immediately due to operator. Parking fees and charges collected by operator are delinquent and if not paid within 14 days shall be considered to be in default and will be referred for collection to a debt collector.”
Live 5 Investigates subsequently contacted the City of Charleston seeking comment about the legality of this operation.
“I first heard about this on Monday [Nov. 22] after Channel 5 reached out and reported that there could be some potential unpermitted activity on the private lot,” Copeland said in an interview.
The following day, after discussions between several municipal departments, Copeland sent the letter ordering PMC to cease operations at the lot.
“It has come to our attention that your company is using this space beyond its original intent relayed to the City in April of 2021 as ‘hotel valet operations,’” Copeland’s letter stated in part.
County records indicate that 7 Calhoun Street is owned by RB Charleston, LLC, which has the same address in Ohio as a firm known as Rockbridge. Municipal minutes show that there were previously plans by Rockbridge to develop a hotel on the premises.
Copeland said that PMC’s lease agreement for the property expires on Dec. 15, explaining that after the letter was sent, “they decided to just simply cease the commercial activity instead of trying to get the permits in the short time frame.”
When Live 5 Investigates returned to 7 Calhoun Street on Nov. 24, all of the posted PMC signs were gone, though a number of drivers were still parking at the lot to visit the aquarium and Fort Sumter.
It remains unclear whether anyone who might have paid PMC citations that were issued at the unlicensed lot will be able to receive their money back.
PMC and Rockbridge have not responded to requests for comment.
Meanwhile Johnston says that he does not intend to pay his citation at all or bring his car when he visits the peninsula in the future.
“It’s just completely not worth it to park in downtown Charleston anymore,” Johnston said.
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