Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Italian Traffic Ticket

A few months after my wife and I returned from Italy a couple of years ago, we got an annoying letter from the Rome police department: a traffic citation telling us that we owed 306 Euros just for the ticket notification, plus the fine itself in an amount yet to be determined. Shit! The total bill could end up costing us over $700.

Worse yet: We had not driven a car in Rome! It was a bum rap. They had the wrong guy!

I couldn’t ignore the letter. The arms of European law have gotten a lot longer in recent years. Long gone are the days when you could rent a car anywhere in Europe and commit all sorts of traffic violations with impunity. In the digital age, nothing escapes the authorities anymore. Whether in the Netherlands or in Italy, in France or in Spain, if there is an outstanding fine you forgot to pay on your last trip, they know about it. The next time you land in Amsterdam, Rome, Paris or Madrid and you go through passport control, they WILL arrest you.

It happened to my brother-in-law when he flew to Holland a few years ago. No sooner had he landed than he was handcuffed by two huge Teutonic policemen, because he had forgotten to pay a speeding ticket incurred on his previous visit to that country. He offered to pay on the spot by credit card, but cash was required. The two giant albinos accompanied him to the nearest ATM. After he paid the stiff fine (grown large due to accumulated interest and administrative costs), they uncuffed him and wished him a hearty welcome to the Netherlands.

I didn’t want to risk something like that...or worse. Who knows how the Italians might handle things? They haven’t been too nice to Amanda Knox... I planned to return to Italy in the future, and I HAD to resolve this issue.

The first step of my campaign was to ask a colleague, a Professor of Italian at Sac State, to translate the letter from the Rome police, fine print and all.

The alleged violation occurred on July 12. I was accused of having driven and parked illegally on Rome’s Corso Montecitori.

The police letter said that my car was rented from an Avis affiliate named SicilyByCar and headquartered in Palermo, Sicily.

Palermo, Sicily? This thing looked more and more like a scam - maybe a Mafia-related scam.

But the letter looked very official, with fancy letterhead, watermark, Rome Police Headquarter address, telephone, e-mail, etc.

But we were innocent! We were not even in Rome on July 12. We got there three days later - by train. We didn’t have a car. Only an imbecile would rent a car while vacationing in Rome. On July 12, we were in Tuscany, a hundred miles away. And yes, we did have a car THERE - a Fiat Bravo from Avis.

Hopefully I still had my rental agreement with Avis. I went searching for it feverishly, and luckily I found it. It had the rental dates and location, and best of all, the license plate: AB76FR.

The Rome police letter also had a license plate: AB67FR

BINGO! The two license plates didn’t match. The morons had REVERSED two numbers. I jumped up in joyous triumph. I had them by the balls! All I had to do was point out their mistake to them, I thought naively.

First I e-mailed them. No reaction. Then I sent a certified letter. Nothing. Should I try to call? Impossible - you get put on hold for an hour or more, which costs you hundreds of dollars, then if someone finally talks to you it’s in Italian...can’t be done.

I asked Avis to intercede on my behalf. They have offices in Italy, they speak Italian. They tried to help me, but after a while they told me that my issue was not with them, but with that “SicilyByCar” outfit in Palermo. I tried to contact SicilyByCar, but that was even more of a dead end than the Rome police department.

So this Italian traffic ticket remains in limbo, erroneous as the ticket is, possibly even a scam...

I am worried. Soon we are going back to Rome, and what happens then? Will I be arrested upon landing at Da Vinci International Airport?

I have contacted the Italian consulate in San Francisco, the US Embassy in Rome, a branch of the State department called USCIS (United States Citizenship and Immigration Services) and also an outfit called “Smart Traveler,” which enrolls/registers you with the relevant US embassies when traveling overseas.

I plan to take with me to Italy a voluminous file. It contains copies of their ticket AND of my car rental agreement, showing the discrepancy in license plates. I will also bring proof (hotel and restaurant bills) that we were not in Rome on the date of the traffic citation.

Nevertheless, you may see headlines about an American professor arrested and imprisoned in Rome. I hope that Roman jails are comfortable. At least the food will be good, of that I am sure.

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