HAVERHILL — Police said they have issued 175 tickets during a crackdown against city residents illegally registering their cars out of state to avoid paying excise tax and save on insurance.
The crackdown began in June, Capt. Michael Wrenn said. It followed complaints from residents who were angry about their neighbors' cars having license plates from New Hampshire or other states.
Before issuing a fine of up to $1,000, an officer must document that an automobile registered out of state was parked overnight in Haverhill for 30 days, although not consecutively, Wrenn said. On top of the 175 tickets, approximately 50 cases are under investigation, he said.
The enforcement effort was sparked by Councilor Robert Scatamacchia and other councilors who have been pushing police Chief Alan DeNaro for months to do more to catch and prosecute registration scofflaws.
Wrenn said the new approach calls for individual patrolmen to investigate suspected registration cheats in their patrol sectors. Those officers then go to court to present their cases to a judge in instances where drivers appeal their tickets, he said.
Police Capt. Alan Ratte said senior officers met with judges and the magistrate at Haverhill District Court before implementing the crackdown.
"They're supporting us," Ratte said of court officials. "It's still a work in progress, but we're having good success."
Wrenn said voluntary compliance is the key to putting a major dent in the problem.
"The most important thing about this is that we're now seeing people registering their automobiles in Massachusetts because they know we're watching," Wrenn said. "Several officers have told me someone they were watching switched to a Massachusetts license plate right in middle of us tracking them."
"Usually once we get one neighbor on a street, all the rest get their cars registered in Massachusetts," Ratte said.
Police said they can fine offenders a variety of ways. The $1,000 criminal fine is for a car with out-of-state plates owned by someone living in Haverhill. Police also can issue a civil fine of $500 for the same violation. A $250 fine is for someone who lives in Haverhill but, for an extended period of time, has been using someone else's car that is registered out of state.
Despite some success, Ratte said the public is often frustrated by the slow pace of police investigating tips. One person e-mailed him three times a day for a month, he said.
"When someone calls to report their neighbor or a coworker on the tip line, it doesn't happen overnight," Ratte said. "It's a process and there's some frustration out there. We have to track the (license) plate for 30 days, and that can take up to 50 days or more. Then they have a period of time to appeal (the ticket). And then it's 30 to 60 days to get a court date for a hearing. It can take three to three and half months for the process to work its way through."
The city splits the revenue from fines evenly with the state, but Mayor James Fiorentini said the enforcement program in not a money-maker.
"The program costs more than it generates in overtime," the mayor said. "But we're doing it because it's the right thing to do."
Scatamacchia said he is pleased with the results reported by police.
"Even with a short budget, you always come up with some innovative way to get the job done," he said.
Other councilors said they have noticed fewer out-of-state plates in the city lately.
"I walk on a street that I used to think should have a sign that said 'Entering New Hampshire' because it had so many New Hampshire license plates on it," Councilor William Ryan said. "But they're all Massachusetts plates now."
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