A question asked regularly, and properly, by non-lawyers is how do cops, courts, governments get away with ignoring the law with impunity? This is particularly apt with small offenses, the sort that touch so many people yet seem to defy scrutiny. There is an answer, but you’re not going to like it.
I drove out east yesterday, to lovely East Hampton. This wasn’t for shopping or a trip to the beach. Not even for happy hour at Cyril’s. My trip ended at the Town of East Hampton courthouse, where they are gracious enough to handle the Village of East Hampton’s parking tickets.
The Village of East Hampton takes its parking tickets very seriously. It’s a huge profit center, fueled by the rich and self-important who believe the rules don’t apply to them. As long as they pay the price, they can do anything they please. The locals avoid the place in the summer, when the tourists run wild, and spend the rest of the year enjoying the benefits of parking ticket income. It’s a trade-off, but the cost-benefit analysis works in their favor.
There were 50 parking tickets on the docket. I was there for one. Dr. SJ has forbidden me to mention the identity of the woman who was driving the car that got the ticket, and so I won’t give her name. But I can tell this story because no client privilege is implicated. In fairness, I hasten to add that the driver had her eagle-eyed lawyer in the passenger seat at the time, and he didn’t happen to see any problem either.
The ticket was defective. Deeply, fatally, defective. Not in one regard, but in essentially every regard. Here’s the laundry list:
The ticket was for “no parking” in a parking lot, neglecting to mention (or even have a place to mention) what statute or ordinance was allegedly violated.
The ticket included an advisement for pleading guilty by mail and remitting a fine. It did not, however, include the notice that the recipient could plead not guilty by mail as well.
The ticket did not include the requisite language of CPL §100.25, that the recipient was entitled to a supporting deposition.
The ticket bore a return date a month beyond the date within which an appearance was required by local ordinance.
Being perhaps too thorough in my approach to something as trivial as a parking ticket, I decided to research the local law to ascertain whether there was a law that could be violated. As it turns out, there was an ordinance that gave rise to a potential violation, but even that was fatally flawed.
No person shall park, except with a parking receipt visibly displayed on the driver’s side of the dashboard of the vehicle, during periods of time when parking limitations are in effect.
There was no law that provided for periods of time when parking limitations were in effect. You can’t just make up rules as you go along, and fine people for violating them.
But how did a couple of reasonably intelligent people find themselves in such a jam in the first place? Even that revealed a problem. At the entrance to the parking lot, tickets are supposed to be taken which allow for an hour of free parking, provided the tickets are displayed right side up. There is a stop sign, below which is a legend to take a ticket to park. The stop sign is high enough to be seen over the heads of people standing in front of the sign. The legend below is not, despite state regulation of the height of signs so that drivers can see them.
As there was a crowd of hungry summer food shoppers awaiting the right moment to cross the entrance to the lot, standing in front of the sign that informed parkers to take a ticket, it was easy not to notice the ticket requirement.
So after a lovely drive out east, with a stop at the Westhampton Beach bakery to pick up a box of fried jelly croissants (which are not to be missed), I found myself in a particularly formal courtroom for an east end village. It must have cost a lot of money to line the walls with wood, like a federal district court rather than the stinky district courts that dot Suffolk County. I wondered where the money came from, and why the town thought it advisable to spend it on such a courtroom. I didn’t wonder for long.
I took a seat in the front row, as attorneys often do, while awaiting the long line of unhappy people conferred with the prosecutor about their moving violations. The numbers were staggering. A few tickets apiece, with a face value of $500 a throw, being negotiated down to $300 or $250 each. This place was a cash machine the likes of which would cause any banker to embarrass himself. No doubt the formality of the courtroom added to the misery, a reminder that each miscreant was facing a mighty government capable of such majesty.
After the line calmed down, I approached the Village prosecutor, a nice young fellow, to discuss the case. He asked me whether I was there for a parking ticket, and I sheepishly admitted I was. There is no huge pride to be taken in defending against a parking ticket, no matter how you spin it. Before I could waste any more of his time, he said “$20.”
This is where it gets really embarrassing. I want to tell you that having recognized the manifest errors in the tickets used by the Village of East Hampton, the flawed law, the improper sign, that I stood firm on principle and rejected his offer. I want to. But I can’t.
At $20, he had my number. I couldn’t say no. I thought of the three more appearances out east, the written motions, the reply, the oral argument, and if the ruling was adverse as so often happens in local courts, the appeal. How could I ignore the time it would have sucked from my life for $20?
I capitulated. I pulled a $20 from my pocket and handed it over to the clerk at the window. In front of me was another lawyer, whose wife had similarly received a parking ticket and who had come to court because he would have never heard the end of it if he refused. He handed over a $20 bill as well. They knew exactly where the tipping point was. They knew how to get away with it.
So you wonder how bad, wrong local laws and practice survive scrutiny? They do so because people like me, who can and should stand on principle and end the tyranny that afflicts so many who can’t fight for themselves, trade off the ability to challenge them for a $20. That’s how. And so the outlaw Village of East Hampton got away with it again.