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Collecting Car Taxes By Cruising Parking Lots

The camera mounted on rear of a deputy's vehicle. Photo: Lisa Miller

Mecklenburg County was unable to collect on $9 million in delinquent car taxes over the past two years. Typically collection entails a visit by a sheriff's deputy, but now the county has a new way to track down people. All it takes is a spin around a parking lot. 

The county's tax assessor has long employed the help of the Sheriff's department to get people to pay up on their vehicle taxes. Deputies pay a visit to people who are a year or so late on those taxes and threaten to seize the car if they don't pay immediately.

"I would say it's probably 95, 98 percent pay at that final demand," says Captain Dan Johnson. He's in charge of the group that makes those visits and he says it's not fun. So he's excited about some new technology on two sheriff's cars that scan license plates. Deputies are notified whenever the cameras find a parked car whose taxes haven't been paid. They leave a notice on that car and tell drivers they have two days to pay up.

"We're actually hoping we see a higher payment before it actually gets to that warrant process," says Johnson. "Believe me, none of our folks like to go out there and take things. Contrary to popular belief, that's the last thing we want to do."

The sheriff's office will still make house calls, but will now have two cars driving through parking lots. Corporal Carl Shannon is demonstrating in a Target parking lot. The two cameras on the back of his car take pictures of each license plate he drives by. He slowly cruises through the lot as license plates pop up on his computer screen mounted to the dashboard. Whenever he passes a car that's paid up, the computer makes a pleasant sounding beep. When he finds one that's not, the computer warns, "Scofflaw or other violation."

The computer zeroes in on a gray BMW. The owner of the car owes $194 in taxes. Shannon puts an orange sticker on the car. If the driver doesn't pay in two days a sheriff's deputy will come knocking. During a week-long trial test of the equipment, the cameras found 45 people who hadn't paid their taxes. Most of those paid up without a visit.