I went to court today. Not for the first time...probably not the last. It was a matter of principal, and in matters of principal I am prepared to throw down whatever gauntlet is required to guard against offense, regardless of magnitude. Justice must be served, and our rights as citizens must be protected. As Thomas Jefferson once said, "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants."
Today the burden fell upon me to refresh that tree with my blood...or, at least, my twenty bucks.
Here's what happened.
A couple of weeks back, I'd gone to my favorite bar, Uisce, in the mid-morning to interview the owners, Molly and David, for an article. I parked in front, paid the meter, and headed in for the interview. When I returned, an hour or so later, I saw the all-too-familiar yellow envelope decorating my windshield. Guh... Oh well...I guess I stayed too long. No matter, it was worth it. However, my mood quickly changed when I looked at the ticket. It said that I had parked over the line that divides the spaces, and the fine was $20. Twenty Dollars?!!!! What kind of a society are we living in when you can charge somebody $20 for coloring a little bit outside the lines?!!!
I've prepared a detailed diagram to set the scene:
As you can see, there were three spaces along the sidewalk. My car is represented in the diagram as "#2". Cars #1 and #3 were already there when I arrived, so naturally, I performed one of my customarily precise parallel parking maneuvers. Upon returning, cars #1 and #3 had been replaced by others, with no evident effect having been caused by my "infraction".
Here are the central points of my case, as prepared for the jury*
- The rules regarding the parking code are unknown and unclear. In a made-up survey of 20 random Bellingham drivers, 19 had never heard of such a rule.
- No harm, no foul. Given that all available spaces were used and paid for, there was simply no evidence that any harm had been done to either the City of Bellingham's coffers or the lives other drivers, err... parkers. Common sense suggests that the delineation of individual parking spaces is arbitrary, assuming that each space may be occupied and paid for. Surely, it would have been different if my actions had resulted in the occupation of two spots, but that was clearly not the case.
- The small, local businesses of downtown Bellingham rely on the ability of their customers to park their cars within a reasonable distance. Parking rules were created by the City to protect those spaces in the interest of local business. In my capacity as a journalist, it is surely plain to see that I was making wise and beneficial use of the available parking, both as a paying "customer" of the City, and as an advocate of the local business whose marketing was the purpose of my visit. Does it not seem contrary to the City's agenda, vis-a-vis local business, to unjustly punish citizens who are attempting to advocate and participate in a thriving downtown economy?
- What was my alternative? To NOT park in the nice, convenient spot because some idiot before me doesn't know how to park? Are we all, then, to be continually at the mercy of our fellow drivers in matters of parking?
- My car is a compact Japanese sedan. It doesn't take up a lot of space. Why not go after some jack-ass in a Hummer?
*[Ed. Note: There was not really a jury, per se. Rather, there was just a judge and a court reporter seated ominously behind a raised bench. The whole setting looked like a scene from C-Span. There were two long tables, end to end, each with three microphones, opposite the bench with about 10 feet in between. Behind the tables were rows of pews with room for about 300 spectators]
Having delivered my arguments with poise and grace, I calmly sat back while the judge carefully rendered her verdict. The room was heavy with anticipation. The gallery, I sensed, was behind me. Well, figuratively behind me...obviously they were also literally behind me.
"I'll grant you the maximum reduction", she said.
Victory! The room erupted with applause, whooping and hollering from every corner. Confetti fell from the rafters while the band played Battle Hymn of the Republic... celebratory canon fire from the street shook the walls, even as the first reports of this tremendous triumph of the meek hit the major cable and internet news outlets. I was later to find out that CNN's Reynolds Wolf cried a single tear...which struck me as particularly powerful, given the jokes I'd made at his expense in recent weeks...
The judge extended her hand to quiet the room. The cheering slowly subsided, the band faded out...
"That'll be twelve dollars", she said.
I was aghast, agog, taken aback! I reached quickly for my pocket thesaurus to search for additional synonyms. The room was suddenly silent... There I was...a solitary soul, standing tall before the Goliath of the American Judicial System. I extended my chest and spoke with great inner confidence, like Joseph Welch challenging Senator McCarthy, " Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?" This only confused the judge, however. Being a woman, she was evidently unaccustomed to being addressed as "sir". Still, the mob was with me, and the air was electric with nervous excitement. Proud, they were, to see one of their own, a lowly citizen, daring to challenge the system and speak up in defense of the Working Man.
But then, out loud, I said, " Meh...really? Ok. Thanks, I guess."
By that point, my concern had shifted, from the $20 fine I already had, to the potential $99 fine that might be waiting for me in the parking lot. See, I'd learned from two hapless souls who'd gone up before me, that it is also against the rules to drive without a license plate on the front of your car. I'd been driving my car for 5 years without a front plate, but I was suddenly positive that Irony was out to get me, and that I would end up paying far more than the 20 bucks I'd come down here to fight about. So I decided that saving $8 was still, technically, a win....so I took it. By the way, $99 was the reduced(!) fine for not having a front plate.
I decided it would be wise to do some investigating of the rules, so as to avoid further frustrating reduction of my finances, and because I am fond of alliteration. Unfortunately, the City of Bellingham Municipal Code appears to have been written by Miss Teen South Carolina. (Watch the video, if you don't get the reference) I'm not kidding... I'll leave you with a little taste. Thanks for reading!
11.36.030 - PARKING METERS - DEPOSIT OF COINS AND TIME LIMITS (WAC 308-330-610)
- A. No person shall park a vehicle in any parking meter space alongside of and next to which a parking meter has been installed during the restricted and regulated time applicable to the parking meter zone in which such meter is located unless a United States coin or coins of the approximate denomination as indicated on the parking meter or a city-issued token shall have been deposited therein for unexpired intervals of time, and said meter has been placed in operation.
- B. No person shall permit a vehicle within his control to be parked in any parking meter space during the restricted and regulated time applicable to the parking meter zone in which such meter is located while the parking meter for such space indicates by signal that the lawful parking time in such space has expired. This provision shall not apply to the act of parking or the necessary time which is required to deposit immediately thereafter a coin or coins in such meter.
- C. No person shall park a vehicle in any parking meter space for a consecutive period of time longer than the maximum lawful parking time designated on the meter, irrespective of the number or amounts of the coins deposited in such meter.