By Producer
NBC News
updated 11/24/2004 1:31:53 PM ET 2004-11-24T18:31:53

When a lawyer from Rome received a ticket for a driving violation in the mail, he couldn’t believe his eyes: his car was allegedly caught running in the restricted bus lane, but “no driver was detected.”

Convinced of his innocence, and of that of his car, he filed a complaint. An ongoing investigation by a public prosecutor has now proved that the car hasn’t got a life of its own, and that the lawyer was a victim of a swindle organized by over-zealous traffic police.

The lawyer is only one of hundreds of outraged motorists from all over Italy who claim to having been fined unfairly in the “eternal city.”

In some cases, parking tickets were sent to people who never visited Rome, others were accused of driving through bus lanes in different parts of the city at the same time, and an army official was fined 10 times on the same road.

The overwhelming influx of complaints convinced Rome prosecutor Giuseppe Corasaniti to open an inquiry into the behavior of the “Ausiliari del Traffico,” the army of traffic police who scour the streets of Rome for illegally parked vehicles and other violations on behalf of the Transport Association.

A sizable group of them are now suspected of having deliberately exaggerated or invented fines for the sake of their own profit. 

More tickets equal higher pay
According to a controversial agreement between the Transport Association and Sita, the private company in charge of the “Ausiliari,” the traffic wardens receive bonuses in exchange for the number of tickets that eventually get paid.

A system that, according to critics, transforms the traffic wardens into an army of over-zealous law enforcers who adopt ninja-like camouflage techniques in pursuit of higher quotas.

“They ambush drivers. They hide to catch the outlaws, although this is not stated in the highway code,” said Elio Lannutti, president of the consumer association Adusbef. “We are not in the Far West, where hiding behind the bushes waiting for the stage coach was permitted. They use unorthodox and unlawful methods.”

These unlawful methods, as reported in the Rome-based daily newspaper Il Messaggero, involve traffic police hiding behind advertisement boards, bushes, and shop windows, or waiting in the comfort of their own cars while taking note of car plates of unaware drivers.

”Maybe they are shy, or they hide in building hallways to find refuge from the rain,” said Mario Cialone, president of Sita, defending the actions of the traffic wardens. “Sometimes they don’t stop the transgressors because they drive by too fast.”

A sensible line of defense indeed, if it wasn’t for a video produced by the consumers association Adusbef, where traffic wardens are seen taking notes of cars while moving at a slow pace themselves. 

Worsen already bad rap
The scandal will only help to worsen the already shaky reputation of the traffic police. According to a survey published last October by the Fondazione Romagnosi, 35 percent of Romans saw the wardens contribution to traffic problems as “excessive and dangerous,” while 34 percent considered them illegitimate.

Twelve traffic wardens are already under investigation on charges of falsification of official documents, but that number is expected to grow.

Corasaniti, the prosecutor, has already requested to view all the unfounded tickets previously annulled by the magistrates during the last two years to single out the trigger-happy.

The traffic policeare running for the bushes again. And it is likely they will stay in the hiding, as this time they are the ones being caught in the wrong lane.

Claudio Lavanga is an NBC News producer based in Rome.

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