New York City is owed $500m in parking fines. No one is paying up

·5 min read

The company behind the bright green marijuana-themed trucks that crowd Manhattan’s tourist districts is now paying the price for repeatedly breaking the law. They haven’t been fined for selling anything illicit, but for being top contributors to one of the city’s other infamous scourges: illegal parking.

The New York City department of finance confirmed to the Guardian that Weed World Candies had paid $200,000 in parking fines to get back several vehicles that had been towed in June by the city’s sheriff’s office.

But while Weed World is apparently getting on the right side of the law, its payments only equal a fraction of the $534.5m the city is owed in unpaid parking fines, according to the agency, as serial offenders skirt the rules in one of the world’s most maddening places to get around.

In Midtown Manhattan, where competition for parking is cutthroat in a grid of cramped and chaotic roadways, trucks habitually stop in bike lanes, forcing cyclists into busy traffic; cars double-park as drivers sprint into bodegas to buy their increasingly expensive bacon, egg and cheese sandwiches. Police often turn a blind eye, amid allegations that they illegally park their personal cars and harassed a cyclist who reported them.

Every day, thousands of these vehicles are slapped with bright orange envelopes with summonses ranging from $35 to $515. But many of their owners never pay: a public database of New York City parking and camera violations over more than two decades lists over 3m unpaid fines.

Related: New York banished cars during Covid – could its open streets be preserved?

Like Weed World Candies – whose trucks mostly sport Alabama plates – some of the most flagrant individual offenders are registered out of state. It’s an open secret that many of these vehicles belong to New Yorkers trying to dodge fees, taxes and high insurance premiums. The city has fewer tools to pursue these vehicles.

According to the data, one of the biggest scofflaws is a white refrigerated truck with Indiana plates that has racked up $139,920 in unpaid fines, for parking in bike lanes, bus lanes, crosswalks and more. Another white refrigerated truck with Minnesota plates has run up $126,355 in unpaid fines, for violations including repeatedly parking in bike lanes and double parking in Midtown Manhattan.

It’s perhaps no surprise that that New York’s closest neighbor, New Jersey, has amassed the most unpaid New York City traffic fines of any other state: $172.2m, according to public data. (Pennsylvania is second, with $89.4m.) But cars from states much farther away – Texas and Florida – rank next, with about $35.8m in unpaid tickets each.

The worst individual offenders aren’t from any American state at all, but are foreign diplomatic vehicles. According to city data, the all-time worst offender is an Egyptian diplomatic car that has racked up $223,265 across 1,983 unpaid tickets. (Vehicles whose license plates contain Egyptian diplomatic country codes have accumulated a whopping $2,014,944.14 in fines.)

Indonesian diplomats are also big offenders, running up a $770,663.85 tab, with the top offender single-handedly contributing $56,325 in unpaid tickets.

And amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, locals protested when journalists found that Russian diplomats had ignored more than $100,000 in traffic fines (that number is now down to $97,414.03, data shows).

According to a finance department spokesperson, Jacqueline Gold, diplomatic vehicles owe a total of $15.7m in parking fines. The agency “works with the US state department to collect unpaid parking tickets from diplomatic vehicles, which are generally exempt from booting/towing”, Gold said. The state department has said that it prevents the registration or renewal of diplomatic license plates for cars with multiple unpaid violations.

In 2019, a New York state comptroller’s report found that the city was insufficiently aggressive in going after unpaid parking tickets and argued officials should make more of an effort to collect fines from New York-registered vehicles. In one sample, out of 153 unpaid fines worth $2.2m, the finance department only took action in 35 cases, the report found. A pattern of inaction means many cases have fallen outside of the New York’s eight-year statute of limitations for parking tickets, costing the city millions of dollars.

After the pandemic hit, the then mayor, Bill De Blasio, suspended booting and towing for all vehicles – that policy only restarted this May. In 2021, a new state law ended the practice of suspending drivers’ licenses for unpaid fines, which advocates said disproportionately punished poor drivers.

But a significant amount of illegal parking by wealthy operators is officially sanctioned – and even subsidized. Under a controversial New York City policy called the stipulated fine program, corporations among the city’s biggest parking offenders may prepay their tickets for a hefty discount, if they agree not to contest the fines. That in effect allows hulking delivery trucks to idle in prohibited zones with the city’s blessing. A 2019 report from the city’s independent budget office found the 10 companies with the most discounted parking fines, including UPS, FedEx, Verizon and Time Warner Cable, got more than $20m worth of discounts combined in a single year.

Critics say the program sends the message that parking fines are just the price of doing business – which is the logic that Weed World apparently followed as its trucks stopped in “no standing” zones, camped in front of fire hydrants, and double-parked on some of Manhattan’s busiest streets, according to city violations data.

The fines were just a “natural byproduct” of having trucks in the big city, the Weed World owner, Bilal Muhammad, told local reporters this week. He blamed the tickets on contractors, who he said let the tickets “get out of hand”.

Ironically, for New Yorkers, the real crime is the trucks’ marketing: while Weed World looks and feels like a mobile dispensary – covered in cannabis leaves and selling lollipops like “strawberry kush” – it doesn’t actually sell marijuana products. The trucks mostly sell legal drug-free candy.

On Yelp, where the company has a one-star rating, a local resident, Jasmin G, complained last December that she had spent $20 on a “useless” pre-rolled joint that left her unsure if she was high at all.

“It’s disappointing to see these carts littering the city with the intent of scamming anyone who chooses to give them business,” she wrote. “They should absolutely be shut down.”