Ticket Takers 

With a 75 percent dismissal rate, here's how Richmond citizens fight the parking police and win.

click to enlarge news11_parking_ticket.jpg

Scott Elmquist

A bearded young man in a plaid dress shirt approaches the judge to contest his parking ticket. Yes, he says, he violated that two-hour time limit, but it was only because he was too messed up on pain killers to move his car.

The man, whose arm is in a sling, tells the judge he broke his wrist, and the night before he got the ticket he slept on it funny. When he woke up it was "on fire," he says, so he took some hydrocodone. It took care of the pain, but meant he was no longer sober enough to move his car before the time limit kicked in. And, he notes as an aside, he didn't really trust his roommates to move his vehicle for him.

Richmond District Court Judge L.B. Cann, who oversees this Feb. 26 session of city parking ticket court, pauses thoughtfully before issuing his verdict.

"The code doesn't give me any guidance on this, but I guess you're claiming this is a medical emergency," Cann says. "I'm going to dismiss your ticket."

The apparent generosity of this verdict immediately resolves any lingering concerns I have about losing my soon-to-be-called parking ticket case, the outcome of which has been a source of anxiety.

Indeed, the decision to contest a parking ticket is weighty. Most are between $20 and $40. But court costs assessed on a lost challenge are an extra $57. That isn't to mention the hour you're likely to spend on a carpeted bench in a seafoam-green courtroom on a weekday afternoon ― parking-ticket appeals are heard as a block Wednesdays at 2 p.m.

If you fight and lose, you lose big.

But it turns out that one of the city's best-kept secrets is that in parking-ticket court, almost no one loses. A review of the past six months of parking cases suggests a contestant is more likely to miss his or her court date than be found guilty of violating a city parking ordinance.

In the six months between September and February, the city issued 57,684 parking citations. Of the 591 tickets appealed to district court, only 11.7 percent were upheld. Another 12.7 percent were upheld because the driver didn't show up court.

The remaining 75.6 percent of tickets were dismissed.

Ahead of me in the courtroom, there's the guy who found the signs "very, very confusing." He shows pictures to the judge. "Yeah, that's confusing," Cann agrees.

There's the woman who parked in a loading zone, but says the business for which the loading zone was dedicated is long gone. "I've been parking in this area for years," she says. As long as the sign stands it must be obeyed, Cann says, but he lets her slide "just this once."

Another woman contests her ticket for parking in a handicap space. She hands the judge a picture showing her car just barely within the lines. Cann decides that the "encroachment didn't interfere" and relieves the ticket.

Then there's my case, which not even my girlfriend thinks I'll win. I parked in a loading zone for 10 minutes to walk my passenger, an out-of-town guest, to the door of a nearby museum. City ordinances permit passenger vehicles to use loading zones for loading and unloading passengers. But everyone, including the police officer I found writing my ticket that day, seems to think that because I got out of the car, I was in violation.

My argument hinges on the fact that nothing in the code specifically prohibits the driver from getting out of the car while loading and unloading his passengers. I never have to actually articulate this logic in court; instead I just walk the judge through the circumstances that lead up to the ticket and show him a picture of the loading zone in question.

Cann tells me the officer was wrong to issue the ticket and helpfully suggests that I activate my flashers next time. Case dismissed.

If you're wondering what terrible parking sins you must commit to actually be found guilty in parking court, a review of the 16 cases that resulted in guilty verdicts so far this year reveals no obvious patterns.

As Cann notes several times during the proceedings, the contestant's position is aided by the fact that the city doesn't send anyone to court to argue its side of the case, leaving him to consider only the facts presented.

Cann offers some insight into his approach while he rules on the case of a man who was assessed three tickets for parking in a tow-away zone: "You seem like a credible person," he says, "you're under oath, and I don't think you'd lie to me over $80."

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