The Agony of Victory: How I Beat the System and Lost Big Doing It

The Ticket

Last fall I was in the process of selling my car, a spiffy 1995 Impala SS. I had taken white shoe polish and painted a 'FOR SALE' message in the rear window of the vehicle. I work at home, and live in a house with no off-street parking, so the car was parked on Milwaukie Avenue, in front of the building next door to my home in southeast Portland, Oregon.

I got a parking ticket.

I was pretty surprised by this. I wasn't parked along a yellow curb, I wasn't blocking a crosswalk, I wasn't too close to a fire hydrant. I looked at the ticket. There are about twenty five check boxes for violations on a City of Portland/Multnomah County parking ticket. My personal ticket had the violation handwritten in. 'For Sale on a Public Street.'

Well, I hit the roof. I unloaded a large amount of invective, stomping around in a state of high dudgeon for several days. There was no way in hell I was going to pay thirty five dollars to the City of Portland for the privilege of parking in front of my own damned house.

A Trip in the Wayback Machine

First step was to call the Parking Office and question the ticket. I wound up talking to an older woman who would have done a fine job of processing cut slips in the dean's office of my old high school. She had that special 'I don't give a crap' sarcasm down to a science.

Parking Monitor:
Me:
Parking Monitor:
Me:
Parking Monitor:
Me:
Parking Monitor:
"Were you parked on the street with a for sale sign in your car?"
"Well, yes."
"Then you were in violation. You should park in your driveway."
"I don't have a driveway."
"Then take the sign out of your car."
"How does the city suggest I sell my automobile?"
"Perhaps you should take out an ad in the paper."

So I call the mayor's office. Sorry, the citizen's ombudsman has quit and we have no replacement hired. Perhaps I could call the city commissioner responsible for the Police Bureau?

Some overworked assistant in the commissioner's office informs me that as I had a sign in my car, I was in violation. I pointed out that had I written 'GO BLAZERS' or 'FUCK THE PIGS' in my window, I would not be in violation. Forbidding me from writing 'FOR SALE' was a violation of my free speech and property rights.

She is unimpressed.

Constitutional Rights

Further perusal of the ticket, a rich and interesting document in its own right, reveals I have the right to a hearing, from which there is no appeal, or the right to a trial. I spend time online.

Aha! In Los Angeles, the ACLU has taken a similar case, and the law has been thrown out as a free speech violation. My empty threats to the commissioner's office turn out to have some basis in fact.

I call the ACLU. The ACLU suggests that before I become excessively exercised about my civil rights, I call the City Attorney's office for an opinion on the matter.

I call the City Attorney's office and wind up talking to a polite but harried assistant city attorney in charge of parking and traffic matters. I explain to her my ticket, that I was parked near my home, and that I am concerned about the violation of my free speech rights. She directs me to the relevant portion of the city code, pointing out that the city only requires that vehicles not be parked on the public street for the principal purpose of displaying the vehicle for sale. She tells me that the law is written this way specifically to avoid creating free speech problems. She also tells me she has previously informed the parking enforcement division not to ticket vehicles under the circumstances in which I received my ticket, and she will so inform them again.

Aha. My instinct was correct, the ticket was wrong.

Meanwhile, I still owe the city thirty five dollars. And I will be damned if I am going to pay it. Hours expended thus far: about ten. This works out to three dollars fifty cents an hour to date.

I go to traffic court.

Wacky Court Hijinks, Part One

The way it works in the City of Portland is you go to the Multnomah County Court. There you stand in an enormous line for a very long time, until you realize you have a parking ticket, not a traffic ticket, and you can go stand in a short line for a little while. Then they put you on that morning's docket for pre-trial hearings, where your options are to plead guilty, no contest or not guilty.

Guilty means you did it and you pay the fine. I have no idea why people go to court to do this instead of just sending in their money. Maybe it's for the EZ-Credit, no interest payment plan.

No contest means you did it and you pay the fine but you don't have to admit you did it. This seems pointless to me, although major corporations do it all the time to avoid admitting civil or criminal liability. I am majestically unconcerned about liability.

Not guilty means you didn't do it, but you have to come back in a month for a separate trial and explain why you didn't do it. Hardly cost-effective or time effective, especially since parking cases get taken after traffic cases, and the morning took me about four hours plus six dollars in parking costs.

Mind you, court was entertaining. People showed up before the judge dressed in clothes I wouldn't wear to the dump. People showed up before the judge with chips on their shoulders the size of Cleveland. People showed up before the judge drunk, stoned, stupid and in advanced states of aggravated stupidity.

For example, there was the woman whose son had been cited for failure to show a TriMet fare receipt on the MAX, Portland's light rail system. She appeared with her son and his psychiatrists. Her argument was, basically, her son is mentally impaired, therefore he shouldn't be cited. The judge pointed out her son had reportedly assaulted the citing officer, who did not further cite him for assault on compassionate grounds, but the son still didn't have a fare receipt. The woman said he always had a monthly pass. The judge asked if the son had the pass with him the day he was cited. The woman said no, he had left it at home. The judge pointed out he still didn't have a fare receipt. I sensed a discrimination lawsuit brewing as she stalked out of court. And she was one of the more sensible people in court that day.

So I went home and awaited my trial date. I did a little more research, prepared my case, so forth. Hours expended thus far: fifteen, plus six dollars in parking.

Wacky Court Hijinks, Part Two

The week before Christmas, I go back to court for my hearing. For the actual trials you show up on a different day and you don't have to stand in a line so long it has its own zip code. Instead you go into a court room with about forty other defendants and about twenty irritated parking enforcement deputies who would rather be out doing their jobs. Maybe not on the day of my trial as it is chilly and raining. Upon reflection, that is about par for the course for Portland in December, and the weather is probably unsurprising to a parking enforcement deputy.

This takes forever. First the judge calls all the defendants. Anyone not in the room by the time the judge calls their name gets assessed their original fine plus a fine for failure to appear. I applaud this, and wish such fines could be levied by citizens on telephone installers and physicians. I do wonder why anyone would go to the trouble of requesting a trial, then fail to appear.

Then the judge offers everyone a chance to change their plea to guilty and get the heck out of Dodge. One unfortunate whose surname starts with 'W' changes his plea so he can go to work. I wonder if an alphabetical analysis of pleas changed will reveal a statistical pattern. A couple of other people, faced with the mighty machinery of justice, wimp out. Curiously, their names are also late in the alphabet.

Then we start trials. After no shows, wimp outs and a couple of procedural matters have been disposed of, we still have around thirty defendants. Half of them appear to have been ticketed by the same deputy, who must be Employee of the Month over at the parking office, so the judge sends him and them out to another courtroom where the machinery of the law is apparently idling and in need of some grist.

We commence hearings. As my surname starts with 'L', I have about eight or ten trials in front of me. I quickly notice that the percentage of aggravated stupidity has not dropped in the trial court, although dress codes have improved somewhat from the heady days of my pretrial hearing. This is with the notable exception of a couple of the parking enforcement deputies who look like they just rolled in from a rumble in the hood. I presume they are either plainclothes, off duty, or work a rough section of town.

One guy gets off because his accuser is AWOL. One guy gets off with what appears to me and everyone else in the court room to be a bald-faced lie, but the judge is too circumspect to find against him on the grounds of obvious bad character. It would set too poor a precedent in political cases, no doubt. A couple of people are just stupid, but the judge is very nice. Yes, that's a nice photo of the intersection, but you took it last week, so what does it show about the way your car was parked in September? One person badgers the parking deputy about why she doesn't remember his ticket until the judge points out the deputies write hundreds of tickets per month. He then badgers the judge briefly, which I'm pretty sure violates rule number one in court.

Rule number one: Don't badger the judge.

The guy just before me has obviously watched too much Perry Mason. He has prepared an elaborate defense of his eight dollar ticket, interviewing neighbors and co-workers, making tape measurements of the scene of the crime, et cetera. He delivers an impassioned plea for the judge to overturn his ticket and throw out the unjust law under which it was issued. This some technical matter involving parking sequentially at two meters on the same block face. The judge is not impressed, and advises the defendant to pursue a political solution to his objections regarding the law. Perry Mason Junior repeatedly interrupts the judge, which is probably a violation of rule number two, and also badgers him. I am amazed the judge does not fine him, and imagine if he was really a lawyer, the judge would have been a lot harder on him.

The Moment of Truth

My turn comes. So far, the score is defendants 2, court 8. At least I am wearing a tie. I omit my invective, attempt not to pretend I am a lawyer, explain my conversation with the assistant city attorney, and pass my relevant page of city code up to the bench for examination. The judge and the parking deputy both seem surprised by what is in the code, but the judge finds for me under the law and dismisses the citation. He explains that the parking deputy has no way of knowing I am parked near my home, which seems weird to me as the mailed notice of my citation found its way to my house with no trouble two days after I got the ticket.

I am free to go, as long as I pay my six dollar parking fee.

The Price of Justice

In the end, I spent about twenty hours fighting a thirty five dollar ticket. At my bill rate, that's about $5,000 worth of time, plus twelve dollars worth of parking fees. Discounting the time spent researching the legal issues, it would still have taken about ten hours to go to the pre-trial hearing, wait a month, go to the trial, and defend myself. By any rational measure, I would have been better off paying the ticket and going on about my business.

In effect, by making it so difficult and tedious to appeal my citation, the city blackmailed me for thirty five dollars.

I imagine that for every citizen like myself that actually goes to the trouble of fighting, dozens, perhaps hundreds, do not. In both principle and fact I was in the right. The City of Portland and Multnomah County made it prohibitively expensive for me to even attempt to argue my case. That the parking office was ignorant of the law, that the enforcing deputy was ignorant of the law, that the judge was ignorant of the law, only aggravates the problem. Ignorance of the law is not an excuse I could have used in court -- the judge made that clear to a prior defendant. Yet ignorance of the law on the part of a parking enforcement deputy cost me $5,012.

Yes, I could have paid the thirty five dollars. If it ever happens again (I have sold the car), I probably will.

I can guarantee you that if I had cost the City of Portland $5,000 of billable time for one of their professional employees they would pursue the matter. I have no similar recourse. I beat the system out of thirty five dollars it never should have fined me in the first place, and it only cost me $5,000 of my time to do it.

Plus twelve dollars in parking fees.

That is the agony of victory.


jlake@jlake.com | Home | version 1.0 2000-12-27