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Legal Advice on the Smartphone


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Legal Advice on the Smartphone, illustrative photo

Credit: Pierre Desrosiers

Successfully challenging a summons or ticket can be challenging and time-consuming. Laypeople must understand the violation that has occurred, determine the type of defense that is legally acceptable, and learn the type of documentation most often used successfully to win a dismissal or reduction of that violation in that specific jurisdiction. For the average person, the time and effort to acquire such arcane knowledge often outweighs the desire to fight the ticket.

Not surprisingly, applications designed to help access and navigate through the legal system are quickly gaining favor among the public. From apps that help you fight parking and traffic tickets to apps that report violations, mobile technology apps are stepping in to serve as an on-the-go legal assistant. The use of a combination of algorithms, technology, and specialized industry experience offer a more-efficient experience dealing with, and within, the legal system.

Among drivers' greatest annoyances are parking and traffic tickets. The process of fighting a ticket traditionally has included conducting the research to determine whether or not a ticket might be dismissible; identifying, collecting, and submitting the proper evidence, and then going through a time-consuming process to actually appeal the ticket, either via mail or by heading to traffic court to fight the ticket in person.

Enter WinIt (appwinit.com), a mobile app available on the iOS and Android platforms that helps users by providing an algorithm that identifies the type of ticket, and then automatically provides a list of the evidence or documentation that is most likely to help convince a judge to dismiss a ticket or reduce a fine. After the user provides the documentation, WinIt taps into the parking-law experts of Empire Commercial Services, a company that has fought commercial parking violations for its customers in New York City for more than 25 years. These specialists will then review the ticket (as parking tickets in New York City have both a pre-printed section and a section that is filled out by hand by the parking officer) and the supporting documentation, and will contest the ticket on the user's behalf in court.

Once the app has been downloaded, users simply need to take a clear picture of the ticket, and then submit it to WinIt. The benefit to users is being able to quickly determine whether or not it will be worth the time to fight a ticket, via the app's algorithm, which prompts users to scan and attach the documentation that would be required to successfully fight a violation (such as a parking receipt, a photo of the vehicle's position, or a copy of the vehicle registration). If a user cannot provide such documentation, WinIt says the likelihood a ticket will be dismissed is very low.

"The city has always given individuals the ability to fight their tickets, whether through the mail, in person, or online," says Christian Fama, a co-owner of WinIT and an executive at Empire Commercial Services. "If a ticket isn't dismissible, the judge doesn't dismiss it." However, the app, which allows one to see what types of defenses are available, provides users a way to easily evaluate whether a challenge to a ticket is likely to be successful without going through the entire process of contesting a ticket.

If WinIT gets the ticket dismissed, the user pays the company 50% of the value of the fine; if the ticket is not dismissed, the user simply needs to pay the fine in full, and owes WinIT no fee.

WinIT began its testing phase in March 2015, and became available for public use three months later. WinIT currently processes hundreds of tickets a day, and credits the success of the app to Empire's decades of success with fighting tickets for commercial clients.

Fama says WinIT's success rate has exceeded his initial expectations, and even exceeded the typical 20%-25% win rate of Empire's commercial ticket-fighting business.

While the service is only available in New York City at present, the company hopes to expand to other jurisdictions in the future, and to get into the business of contesting moving violations.

Another provider based in California has already made that move into moving violations, driven in part by push-back from the cities of Los Angeles, Oakland, and San Francisco. Launched in 2012, Fixed was founded by David Hegarty to streamline the process of fighting parking tickets by capturing ticket data, submitting the challenge to the respective municipal parking authority, and matching app users with attorneys, if so desired. However, in mid-2015, the aforementioned cities made a software change that blocked bulk electronic submissions of parking tickets, making it very difficult for Fixed to effectively submit and contest tickets through its app, since they would have to be sent one by one.

As a result, "we've suspended parking ticket operations in all areas," Hegarty says, noting the company is now solely focused on expanding its traffic ticket business. "We're currently operating in over a dozen states, and hope to get to 25-plus [states] in the next year."

Like the parking ticket service, the traffic ticket service matches tickets with attorneys using a learning algorithm that is fed new data from each ticket submitted, such as the location of the violation, the type of violation, and relevant data such as the vehicle's speed or other situational data related to the alleged traffic violation. This algorithm then matches the circumstances of the ticket with attorneys that have specific experience with the type of violation in that specific geographic area.

Still, traffic tickets and parking tickets are just scratching the surface of the plethora of legal issues that often come up. Los Angeles-based LegalTap (legaltap.co) was founded to make accessing and consulting with lawyers simpler, more convenient, and less expensive than simply flipping through the Yellow Pages or doing a random search online.

The application is designed to provide efficient, cost-effective legal consultation and forms for routine legal issues, including business start-up issues, immigration issues, name changes, or other relatively straightforward topics that generally still require some legal input or review.

Natacha Gaymer-Jones, the founder of LegalTap, says the app facilitates a 15-minute consultation with a lawyer for just $39, with the option to schedule a more in-depth conversation at a later date. The application was launched on iOS and Android in June 2015, and as of February 2016, has generated more than 1,500 calls on topics ranging from parking ticket issues and immigration issues to business issues and more.

"We wanted to provide people with a way to address quick legal issues, by providing an app that's accessible and also at a price point that was understandable," Gaymer-Jones says, noting the application also helps lawyers quickly vet potential clients to see if they are a good fit, and provides "an easy way for lawyers to make money without giving away a free hour of legal consultation."

The app features a pre-programmed algorithm that matches the type of query with lawyers that have signed up to be part of the LegalTap network. The system is designed to match only attorneys qualified in the appropriate area of law to clients' needs; a question on divorce law will only be routed to vetted divorce attorneys.

Once a call comes in and is analyzed, lawyers that have agreed to answer calls have 90 seconds to take the call, or the call is routed to another qualified attorney. If a call is accepted, the lawyer can either handle it then (and be paid around $150 per hour for handling incoming calls), or may choose to schedule an in-person meeting with the caller, thereby gaining a new client.

LegalTap also offers a form shop where users can select and download basic legal forms, fill them out, and then consult with a LegalTap attorney before submitting them. "A lot of law firms are trying to productize their offerings," Gaymer-Jones says. "We want to give a bit of personal advice."

Still, mobile apps are not simply tools for fighting tickets or managing legal problems. An app released in 2009 by Parking Mobility (www.parkingmobility.com), a non-profit group dedicated to addressing accessible parking abuse, lets users capture and report instances of people who illegally park in handicapped-accessible parking spots.

The project director, Mack Marsh, who was paralyzed in an accident 15 years ago, founded the group because he and others in the disability community felt accessible parking violations were not adequately being addressed by law enforcement. However, the app's appeal extends beyond those who are directly or indirectly affected by disabilities.

"We have people who don't identify with the disability communitythey just see this as an issue," Marsh says. "Typically, they download the app because they are angry when they see a violation, and they see there's no other way" to adequately address the issue, since these parking violations are often of low priority to police departments.

Once downloaded, the app asks users to capture three photos of an alleged violation (one from the front capturing the lack of an accessible-parking placard, one from the rear to capture the license plate, and a third photo capturing the violation itself).

Marsh says the app makes it easier to collect verified instances of accessible parking violations, since it captures photos and stamps them with the phone's geolocation data, along with time and date information.

Parking Mobility currently has more than 500,000 users worldwide, broken into two groups. Casual users can be located anywhere, and their violation reports are automatically collected by Parking Mobility, which then passes along the data to the relevant municipalities to highlight the problem of accessible parking violations, with the eventual goal of creating a partnership between the jurisdiction and a second group of users, known as citizen volunteers, who are deputized and allowed to issue parking citations via the app.


The Parking Mobility App documents accessible parking violations by stamping photos of the violations with the phone's geolocation data, along with date and time.


"Every report that comes into our system is reviewed by our staff or one of our board members," Marsh says, noting any reports submitted by casual users that do not capture enough or proper evidence of a violation are rejected, along with an explanation of why the submission was rejected. However, for users that have been gone through the training and have been deputized by their local law enforcement department, submissions must "have to have the elements that can stand up in court."

Currently, Parking Mobility has partnerships with jurisdictions in Texas, Kansas, and Oregon, and is negotiations with jurisdictions in Florida, Georgia, North and South Carolina, Arizona, and Colorado.

Still, whether a partnership has been struck or not, "we encourage the use of the Parking Mobility App everywhere," Marsh says. "Reports in no-partner communities are as important, if not more so, than reports which result in citations, [because] data from reports is the only way to get communities to issue citations."

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Further Reading

Fixed Blocked in Three Cities: https://nakedsecurity.sophos.com/2015/10/15/fixed-app-that-fights-parking-tickets-blocked-in-3-cities/

Parking Mobility: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vyCax5yVyC8

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Author

Keith Kirkpatrick is principal of 4K Research & Consulting, LLC, based in Lynbrook, NY.

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Figures

UF1Figure. Screenshots from WinIT (left) and Fixed, two apps that help users contest parking tickets.

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©2016 ACM  0001-0782/16/07

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