Its Costs To Be Right

About 10 months ago, I got a parking ticket for parking in what I thought was a legal spot.  So, for the hell of it, I decided to challenge the tickets, plead not guilty, and ask for a court date.

In the interim, before I got my court date, I parked there again, and got another ticket.  I challenged this one too.

I got a notice from the court to come down for a “conference.”  I did.  I waited about an hour, and when I was finally called, I started making my case.  The person told me this, “this isn’t the trial, this is just a conference.  Do you want to plead this out to go to trial.”  I said, “I waited here for over an hour to tell you what I’ve already told you…that I want a trial?!  That’s such a ridiculous waste of my time,” and I left.

Several months after that, I finally get notice of my court date.  I’m told to report at 9 am.  I get there at 8:30 and make my way into the courthouse.  And then I waited.  From a room full of at least a hundred people (possibly more), I was literally the second to last one called.  I waited for almost three hours.  I had to ask permission to leave and be allowed back into the (then locked) room, so I could put more money in the meter.

Finally, I get there for my trial.  The merits of the case notwithstanding (I still think I was technically right, despite the hostile questioning from the prosecutor and the hostile tone of the testimony of the “parking enforcement officer”), I was found guilty on one ticket, and the second was discharged.  Here’s what I wrote in an email to some people at the time:

So, I had my trial today on my parking ticket(s).

Without getting into too much detail about the absolutely horrendous process they have there (I waited over three hours), the actual trial was pretty cool.  I got to play litigator for a little bit. The result was mixed.

The “parking enforcement officer” (not a cop) was there, and hooo, boy was she nasty.  The prosecutor was hostile to me, before I even said a word.  I wonder if wearing a kippa was a bad idea.  I think they were just pissed that I was bothering with a trial for a $90 parking ticket.

That’s pretty much what it came down to.  Every point they tried to make, I rebutted, and every point I made seemed to fall on deaf ears.  The prosecutor even went so far as to ask me “do you really think that’s a safe place to park?”  I responded, yes, I do, but the judge made her stop that line of questioning as being argumentative.  The cop admitted to giving me the second ticket knowing that she had just given me another one, and wondered why I would park there twice.  I cross-examined her, and I asked her if it occured to her that I looked up the statute, thought she was wrong, submitted  a plea of not guilty and maintained it was a legal spot (still do).  The prosecutor objected to the question, and the judge sustained.  I wanted to make it seem like she had it out for me (which I think she did), but aparently, that’s argumentative, too.  The prosecutor was really nasty to me.  One time, I tried to say something and she snapped at me to let her finish.  So then, when I was talking, she interrupted me, and I looked at her, and she stopped herself and muttered something about interrupting.  Nice.

Anyway, here’s where it gets intersting.  The cop insisted that she cited the correct section.  But the prosecutor was scrambling to find a statute book, because it was wrong.  The cop said the section changed in August.  The prosecutor got a statute book from 2006, and it was the same.  I testified that I looked up the statute in April/June when I disputed the tickets.  So here’s one takeaway….it doesn’t matter that they cite the wrong section.  She cited me for blocking a driveway (1202a2a), but explained [on the ticket] that I was “within 20 feet of the intersection” (1202a2b) which she claimed was really 1202a2a when she wrote the ticket.  I argued (as we’ve discussed) that the statute says within 20 feet of the crosswalk, which there isn’t there.  So she starts trying to use her “cheat sheet” notes on the statutes to prove that’s not true.  She says “my notes here says: 1202a2a, 20 feet of an intersection.”  I pointed out, “with all due respect to the officer’s notes, that’s not what the statute says, it’s a crib sheet, not the statute book.”

The prosecutor argued that I was blocking the sidewalk and dangerously parked.  I said, that’s not true.

The judge, after hearing the factual and legal arguments, found me guilty.  I think he was going to find me guilty from the outset, and nothing would have changed his mind.

The strange thing is, he only found me guilty on one ticket, and unconditionally discharged the other.  Perhaps he was swayed by my arguments, and felt it was wrong to make me pay twice?  I’ll never know.

I’m not sure it was worth all that time and effort to save $80, but it was fun, even if I didn’t get the result I wanted.

Anyway, this isn’t exactly “news” but I wanted to bring it up (and because this video reminded me of it) because of something else.  When I paid the fine on the guilty ticket, there was an $80 fine and a $10 surcharge.  On the discharged ticket, there was still a $10 surcharge.

Let’s put aside the guilty verdict for a moment.  If I had one ticket that was the subject of the trial, and I prevailed, meaning that I had done nothing wrong and was ticketed unjustly, I still would have had to pay the surcharge.  That’s so absurdly ridiculous that it bothers me so much.  Why should I have to pay anything, a single red cent, even “court costs” for prevailing?  Essentially, the court has taken my money for doing nothing wrong.  It shouldn’t cost me money to defend myself.

What this does, in my opinion, is create a set of perverse incentives.  First, it creates an incentive for me to not fight the ticket, as even prevailing would have a cost (an actual cash cost, not to mention the cost in time and effort to defend myself).  This creates a reverse incentive to truth and justice.  But even worse, this creates an incentive for the township and its agents to ticket whenever and whereever possible, even if the ticket is unjustified.  The court/township will collect surcharges on each ticket, even if every single one is dismissed.  That’s not right at all.  Something about this strikes me as a due process violation, and I don’t like it, not one bit. 

Anyone want in on a class action against the township with me?

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9 responses to “Its Costs To Be Right

  1. I wish I could!! I’ve long argued similar points, but I have no way of actually getting into a situation to do so, let alone the ability to actually win such a case.

    I fought with a judge about a different situation – parking too close to a hydrant. I objected to the cop’s assertion that I’d been parked within whatever distance of the hydrant, and even showed a picture my wife had taken. The judge said he can’t know if I simply moved the car and took a picture. I noted that this meant that there is absolutely no way to avoid a fire hydrant ticket – the judge AGREED. A cop could place a ticket on your car for parking near a hydrant, and unless you can prove indisputably that you were not parked by the hydrant at the time he gave the ticket, you lose. I told the judge that’s requiring a person to have a live camera feed on his car 24/7 to get out of a ticket he doesn’t deserve… and he agreed. I asked how someone would avoid such a ticket, then, and he said “don’t park close to hydrants”. Of course, that wouldn’t actually stop a cop, just make it require them to really not care about anything but revenues. Surely, there are no cops like that…

  2. This is awesome. Where was this? You should TOTALLY appeal. That will end up costing money too (you’ll have to pay for a transcript of the trial to be typed up), but it’s worth it on principle.

  3. Do normal rules of evidence apply in an administrative hearing? Ezzie, why can’t you just swear out an affidavit stating that the picture was taken where the car was parked when it got the ticket? You can authenticate the photo, and then tip the scales of the preponderance of the evidence in your favor.

  4. Regarding the $10 fee and court costs generally, this is the age old question and critique of the U.S. court system. Just like we need to discourage the town from unwarranted tickets, we need to discourage lawsuits generally (or perhaps you can say “encourage” only legit claims). Our society is way too litigious. And the people who run to sue others also seek crazy dollar amounts as “damages.” We need to impose some kind of penalty – perhaps 10% of the amount sued for – on plaintiffs who lose. This will cut down on unwarranted lawsuits and require plaintiffs to think a little before tacking on a zero or two to the damage claim. Maybe the town also need a similar penalty.

  5. We need to impose some kind of penalty – perhaps 10% of the amount sued for – on plaintiffs who lose.

    I’m not sure that’s fair or warranted. There are certainly lawsuits that are justified and “legit” that may still lose.

    And the amount claimed as damages is usually irrelevant and doesn’t matter. The jury isn’t bound by it, so what difference does it make? None. It’s an arbitrary number the lawyer picks because you used to have to ask for something and I’m pretty sure now you’re allowed to submit complaints that don’t include a specific damage request, just “what the court deems appropriate.”

    Used to be you heard all the time “he’s suing for $10 million” or something, and thought “that’s absured,” because it was. Nobody was actually trying to get $10 million, they just needed a number. That wasn’t the boom or bust number, and if there was a verdict, the jury could return any amount, more or less, it saw fit.

    Now, all you hear is “seeking unspecified damages,” because you don’t have to put a number in the complaint anymore.

  6. Adam – I’m under the impression it wouldn’t have helped. They consider the word of a cop on a ticket to be pretty substantial, regardless – more than an affidavit? Same? Enough that they don’t assume a cop would make it up? Dunno.

  7. Ezzie –

    So frustrating. First of all, let’s assume that the cop isn’t making anything up. He’s still human and capable of making honest errors.

    But what about the cop’s quotas to issue a certain number of tickets? The motive is there for an unscrupulous person to cheat at the margins, if he/she was so inclined.

    The burden of proof is so difficult in these administrative hearings, because everyone in the room knows that you’re not going to give up, rather than push the issue over $80.

  8. ** change that to: everyone in the room knows that you are going to give up rather than push the issue over $80.

  9. Right, especially because it is in their interest for you to be “guilty”. Also, while I agree with you on quotas, I think officially in most places quotas are illegal, it’s more “understood”, and there’s no way they’re going to admit to a mistake. And obviously, you have a vested interest in the money you wouldn’t be paying, so sure they say you’d lie.

    It’s just a BS system.

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