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January 16, 2018

I Fought the Law and I Won (Eventually)

Do you see a "No Parking" sign? No, because it isn't there. And yes, my Miata is beautiful (to me).
I recently had a (very minor) run-in with local law enforcement in the form of a parking ticket. I eventually got it thrown out, but it left me feeling a little suspicious of our local "justice" system. Read on to learn what happened.

It all started when I was working on a construction project as part of my former part-time job. After a hard day of work, I came outside to discover a parking ticket on my Miata. I initially assumed it was street sweeping related and I was just oblivious to the signs, so I started looking for them. There were no visible signs ahead of my car, but there was one facing the opposite direction approximately 90 feet behind my car, so I walked over to see what it said.
You can see the back of a sign way back there.
When I reached the sign, I was surprised to read it forbid all parking on that side of the street, at all times. I didn't realize there were any streets in our town with restrictions like these, although in hindsight, the road was a little narrow to have parking on both sides.

Out of curiosity, I decided to see if there was a similar sign ahead of my car, that was actually facing toward it, so I started walking, and walking. I finally found the sign about 200 feet ahead, around a bend and behind a tree.

I immediately thought the ticket was unfair given the scarcity of signs, and based on the fact that I never actually drove past a sign facing toward me. That's right, I didn't just drive right past the sign behind my parked car and ignore it. I never passed it. You can see how that happened in the image below.

It was clear to me, and most reasonable people, this ticket was bogus, so I decided to fight it. At this point I will point out the ticket was for a paltry $33, and it was almost certainly going to take a lot more than $33 worth of my time to fight it, but as a "retiree" I've got lots of time on my hands. It was also a matter of principle to me. I can't let the government bully me out of money over a bogus claim,  even it it is only $33.

In Paso Robles, there are three levels of dispute for parking tickets. The first is an "Administrative Review" by a police officer done through the mail. The second step is an "Administrative Hearing" with an "impartial Civil Hearing Examiner" which can be done in person or through the mail. The third is "Appeal to Civil Court."

To initiate the Administrative Review, I had to go online and print out a form, fill it out, and mail it in. Simple enough. On that form I had to make my case as to why the ticket was invalid. I spent a decent amount of time writing a description of what happened and included the pictures above. It was pretty obvious the ticket should be dismissed, yet I got a prompt response informing me "...the citation was appropriately issued and therefore you are required to pay the penalty amount of $33..."

This is where my faith in the system started to falter. I understand why the ticket was issued, but after I pointed out the insufficiency of the signage, it should have been dismissed instantly. Instead, it was upheld by a police officer who probably didn't even review the evidence I submitted. I suspect he rejects every review that comes across his desk with a proverbial rubber stamps. As far as I can tell there's no incentive for them to do an honest review and no accountability if their ruling gets overturned later.

After the initial review, I started to wonder if this whole thing was just a cash grab by the city. The street in question is in a relatively new subdivision. Why would the city allow them to build a street that is only wide enough for parking on one side? Why would they post an insufficient number of signs about the parking restrictions? Why would they make the fine small enough that most people wouldn't bother contesting it? Why would they uphold an obviously bogus ticket in my initial review? The most obvious answer is because they want to generate revenue from parking tickets.

I couldn't let this stand, so I went online and printed the form for an Administrative Hearing. I filled it out and sent it in, along with the required payment of the $33 fine. I chose to have an in person hearing because if the ticket was going to be upheld again, I wanted them to have to look me in the eyes and try to justify it.

After several weeks without hearing anything, and without my check clearing, I called to see if they received my letter. They were able to find it and informed me the person who does the reviews was out sick, and they would call to schedule a hearing soon. A couple more weeks went by before I finally got a call to schedule my review. It was the person who would be doing the review and it was clear he had looked at my case because he made some comments that implied he was skeptical of the ticket. We set the review for the next day and I eagerly awaited my chance to plead my case.

I arrived at the police station for my hearing and after a short wait was led into a tiny room. The reviewer was dressed in a police uniform, so he didn't appear to be the "impartial Civil Hearing Examiner" I was promised, but I didn't really mind. He had my evidence from the first appeal and he let me know he visited the location of the violation. He didn't even ask for any details about the situation. He only asked about the other cars in my pictures--who they belonged to and whether they got tickets. After that, he said he agreed with me that the signage was insufficient and was dismissing the ticket. I was told to expect a refund in a couple weeks, and I was out of there in less than five minutes. In my opinion, the brevity of my hearing confirms the initial review was a total sham.

Shortly after that I received my refund check, but I was disappointed it didn't include a note saying something like "Sorry we wasted your time."
Unfortunately, my tiny victory doesn't address the bigger issue: the city of Paso Robles squeezing unsuspecting citizens for cash. Even more troubling is the seemingly pointless initial review process that upheld my ticket against all common sense, forcing me to waste even more time with a second review. I was able to get justice, but most people probably don't have the time or the energy to deal with it.

I am thinking about raising this issue with my city government, and will let you know if I do.

Have you ever fought a ticket? How did it go? Let us know in the comments.

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