'Robot Lawyer' Makes The Case Against Parking Tickets

Jan 16, 2017
Originally published on February 15, 2017 12:25 pm

It was the first day of school for Dan Lear's three kids. In a scramble to get his boys to class on time, the Seattle lawyer wound up parking in a space he probably should have avoided.

"There was a fire hydrant, but the curb wasn't painted and the fire hydrant was painted a kind of a funny color. And so I thought, and maybe it was wishful thinking, but I thought I would be OK to park there," he says.

Sure enough, Lear returned to a ticket.

"I was bummed! I mean, obviously no one's really happy when they get a ticket but I went home, I put it on my fridge and I let it sit there cause I just didn't want to deal with it," he says.

So he found something that would — DoNotPay, a free online "robot lawyer."

It has helped drivers in London and New York City appeal parking tickets.

It had just expanded into Seattle, and Lear decided to give it a go.

He logged in and the DoNotPay bot asked Lear a series of questions — like where the ticket was issued and a description of what happened. Within minutes, he had a 500-word letter to send to the city.

The verdict?

"Ultimately, yeah, they let me off," Lear says.

The idea behind DoNotPay belongs to Joshua Browder, a 20-year-old student at Stanford University who's originally from London.

He wants to expand the service into San Francisco, so he spends time doing field research, combing the streets, peeking at parking tickets and studying signs. He looks for confusing signage, like one he noticed on a recent visit near the city's Mission District.

"There are two signs," he says after his field trip. "The first one says 7 to 9 a.m. and 4 to 6 p.m., you can't park. And that one is fine and clearly marked. But then there's a sign below it that says no parking up to 6 a.m., but there's no start time. ... It's covered up, and it looks like it's been covered up by the local authorities."

Browder's bot has, so far, helped drivers overturn more than 200,000 parking tickets in London, New York and Seattle.

This month it will enter several more cities including San Francisco, Chicago, Denver and Los Angeles, the capital of cars and traffic. In Los Angeles, about 40 percent of challenged citations are dismissed.

DoNotPay's success rate is 60 percent, according to Browder.

It's easy to see why drivers would flock to this service. But how do city officials feel?

"Currently, we have four part-time field investigators to do the investigations for signs and curbs in the city of Los Angeles," says Wayne Garcia, parking operations chief for the city of Los Angeles.

He says he's anxious to see what will soon come through the mail, given how even a modest uptick in appeals could overload resources. But he admits there could be an upside.

"Our staff spend a great deal of time reviewing letters from motorists in trying to decipher what they're actually contesting," Garcia says.

And that's because most people just don't write like lawyers.

"If this process will help the motorists really focus in on why they're contesting their parking citation, it would also help our staff in reviewing the contested parking citation," he says.

Browder says he wants to "level the playing field so anyone can have the same legal access under the law."

He also wants this kind of legal help to go beyond parking tickets. And in some cities he's already done that — with landlord/tenant disputes and unexplained banking charges.

Right now, he's working on the bot's ability to help refugees apply for asylum.

"If one day someone can have the same standard of legal representation as the richest in society then I think that's a really good aim," he says.

And Browder says it's all part of an even larger ambition to, one day, make justice free.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

You get a ticket even though you thought you parked in a legitimate spot. NPR's Arezou Rezvani reports that an online robot might be able to help.

AREZOU REZVANI, BYLINE: It was the first day of school for Dan Lear's kids. In a scramble, this lawyer from Seattle parked where he could and got his three boys to class.

DAN LEAR: There was a fire hydrant, but the curb wasn't painted and the fire hydrant was painted kind of a funny color. And so I thought - maybe it was wishful thinking - but I thought I would be OK to park there.

REZVANI: Sure enough, Lear returned to a ticket.

LEAR: I was bummed. I mean, obviously no one's really happy when they get a ticket. But I went home, I put it on my fridge and I just let it sit there 'cause I just didn't want to deal with it.

REZVANI: So he found something that would. He had heard about DoNotPay, a free online robot that helped drivers in London and New York City appeal parking tickets. It had just expanded into Seattle, and Lear decided to give it a go. He logged on, answered the bot's questions and within minutes, he had a 500-word letter to send to the city.

Verdict?

LEAR: Ultimately, yeah, they let me off.

REZVANI: The mind behind DoNotPay belongs to Joshua Browder, a 20-year-old student at Stanford originally from London.

JOSHUA BROWDER: This is automatic.

REZVANI: It is automatic.

BROWDER: OK, thank God.

REZVANI: Newly licensed, he offered to take me to one city he wants to expand into next, San Francisco. Browder combs the streets, peeks at parking tickets, studies signs.

BROWDER: Oh, there we go. I think there's one.

REZVANI: It's field research he programs into what he calls the world's first robot lawyer.

BROWDER: So there's two signs. The first one says that from 7 to 9 a.m. and 4 to 6 p.m., you can't park. And that one is fine and clearly marked. But then there's a sign below it that says no parking up to 6 a.m., but there's no start time.

REZVANI: It's covered up.

BROWDER: It's covered up, and it looks like it's actually been covered up by the local authority.

REZVANI: Browder's bot has so far helped drivers overturn more than 200,000 parking tickets. This month, it will enter several more cities, including the capital of cars and traffic, Los Angeles, where right now about 40 percent of challenged citations are dismissed. Compare that to DoNotPay's success rate of 60 percent, and it's easy to see why drivers would flock to this service.

But cities...

WAYNE GARCIA: Currently we have four part-time field investigators to do the investigations for signs and curbs in the city of Los Angeles.

REZVANI: Wayne Garcia is chief of parking operations for the city of Los Angeles. He says he's anxious to see what will soon come through the mail, given how even a modest uptick in appeals could overload resources. But he admits there could be an upside.

GARCIA: Our staff spend a great deal of time reviewing letters from motorists and trying to decipher what they're actually contesting about.

REZVANI: And that's because most people just don't write like lawyers.

GARCIA: If this process will help the motorists really focus in on why they're contesting their parking citation, it would also help our staff in reviewing the contested parking citation.

BROWDER: I want to level the playing field so that anyone can have the same legal access under the law.

REZVANI: DoNotPay's creator Joshua Browder wants this kind of legal help to go beyond parking tickets. And in some cities, he's already done that with landlord-tenant disputes and unexplained banking charges. Right now he's working on the bot's ability to help refugees apply for asylum.

BROWDER: If one day, like, someone can have the same standard of legal representation as the richest in society, then I think that's a really good aim.

REZVANI: Which Browder says is part of an even larger ambition to one day make justice free. Arezou Rezvani, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.