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Tech Zaps Tax Cheats

WFMY | April 6 2005

New Haven, CT -- A few weeks ago, New Haven resident Cara Norman found her son's car being towed from outside her Connecticut home. The reason stunned her. It turns out she owed $37 in back taxes.

"I was furious. I'm going; 'What are you towing it for?' And he said 'Well, you owe back taxes."

As CBS News Correspondent Thalia Assuras reports, in a small but growing number of cities, vehicle tax and parking ticket deadbeats are being nailed by the taxman's new high-tech tool.

"We like it," says Moses Cortez of the Arlington Treasurer's Office in Virginia. "It makes our job a lot easier."

It looks like a radar gun, but it's actually an infrared scanner that reads license plate numbers and then runs them against a computer database of tax and ticket delinquents. If there's a match, it locks in.

"It will read hundreds of plates in a few minutes," says Cortez.

On a recent outing through the streets of Arlington, it only took seven minutes to hit pay dirt. The car was stripped of its plates, booted or towed until the owner pays up.

Arlington County Treasurer Frank O'Leary says it's a cash cow.

"It sure is and we're going to keep doing it," he says. "The cars just jump right out and say, 'Here I am, come and get me.'"

Arlington is reeling in $2,800 of lost revenue a day, already more than paying for the gadget, which cost $2,700.

Authorities in Arlington are so pleased they're now planning to expand their BootFinder operation. They'll soon be chasing scofflaws for everything from unpaid swimming pool fees to, no kidding, overdue library books.

But back in New Haven, which has scored about $600,000 in just six months, people are lining up to pay their bills to avoid getting caught. Lawyer Arthur Machado wants the program shut down.

"You can't even go to Wal-Mart without worrying about being towed," says Machado.

In a complaint, Machado argues the BootFinder system is unconstitutional, an illegal search and seizure.

"It's the government overreaching," says Machado. "It looks a lot to me like Big Brother, 1984, you know, George Orwell."

But until a court gives it the boot, the BootFinder is some cities' money in the bank.

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