Fighting Parking Tickets
First of all, let me say right up front that I am not an attorney, and thus could not give you legal advice even if I wanted to. It is recommended that you consult a competent attorney before any court appearance. This page is intended as a resource that citizens and attorneys alike may use to find sample motions, get ideas for strategies to fight parking tickets, and generally fight back against a system that has become self-serving and abusive to its citizens. This site is not an authoritative source, but rather a growing respository of approaches, strategies, and motion documents with empirical results. Your own state/county/city could have different laws, and will definitely have different judges and motion forms as compared with those discussed here. Keep this in mind. Likewise, be aware that if you use this web site to advise another party, this may be considered the authorized practice of law. In any case, the author of this web site shall have neither liability nor responsibility to any party for any loss or damage caused or alleged to be caused by the use of the information provided herein. Let me reiterate that, by providing this information, I am not engaged in rendering legal services.
OK, so you got a ticket, or citation, or notice of violation, or summons and complaint, or whatever your municipality calls a parking ticket. The ticket is a "charging document" in that it charges you with an offense. It contains some blanks that the meter maid must fill in, and thus has includes some opportunity for mistakes, especially when you consider that meter maids are often people with no real marketable skills or job prospects outside of this type of drudgework. Alternatively, perhaps your ticket was written by a police officer who doesn't spend much time on parking duty, and thus may not know the statutes as well as he/she thinks. If you find an error on your ticket, you can argue that the charging document was insufficient, thus violating your due process rights. Check the date, time, and location. If any of them are way off, that may be a procedural issue that you can challenge in court. Likewise, if it was a weekend, or city holiday, or outside a certain range of hours, then the statute you're accused of violating may not even be applicable and you can get your ticket dismissed.
Errors on your ticket represent procedural issues, and are a great thing to focus on in court. Why? Because procedural errors in your charging document don't require a lot of factual support (the ticket says what it says, you don't need witnesses or testimony or cross-examination to establish the content of the ticket), and the issues are usually relatively clear cut. Often the meter maid/officer will simply admit the error, and then you're left only to argue the legal side of things. When dealing with factual mistakes on the ticket, it's important to remember that as a defendant in court, you need only show that you didn't commit the specified violation at the specified time, specified place, in the specified manner, and with the specified vehicle listed on the ticket. If any of those elements were recording incorrectly on the ticket, you've got a strong case for getting the ticket dismissed. (Even if you committed a very similar violation several blocks away, or the next calendar day, or in a vehicle other than the one specified, that would be an entirely different matter, and not the specific offense you have been charged with.)
Note that minor mistakes, e.g., listing your car as black when it is actually dark blue, or the address being off by half a block, are less helpful, but can still be of some use in calling the meter maid's observational abilities/attention to detail into question.
Before you even get into your vehicle, use your cellphone to snap some photos of where you were parked, any nearby signs (along with any trees, graffiti, stickers, or other obstructions that may have made them difficult to see), markings painted on the pavement (or worn to the point of illegibility), etc. Try to imagine explaining why the ticket wasn't legitimate to someone who's never been to the location, and make sure you take good, clear pictures of anything relevant to your argument. If it's the next morning that you find the ticket, but you parked at dusk, then come back again at night and take photos at the same light level/conditions as when you parked. Even if your ticket was written a month ago, it's worth going back to walk around the area to look for mitigating circumstances and document them photographically. A picture is worth a thousand words when you're in parking court, and can often hold even more weight than the meter maid's sworn testimony! (Note that the meter maid may bring his/her own photos of your parked vehicle to court, so be ready for that eventuality! In my experience, police officers are less likely to bring photos to court, but still can.)
In some cases, it may even be worthwhile for you to make a video. For example, if the parking meter was broken when you parked, use your phone to take a video of you trying to put a coin in the meter, and the meter not properly recognizing that money has been deposited. Go back as soon as possible, before they can repair it. (If it was working when you parked there, but the next day, *ahem*, it mysteriously isn't, well, so much the better for your case. Only kidding here.)
While you're there, walk the area thoroughly. Are the parking spots in the area marked consistently with those 4-5 blocks away, or in other parts of the city? Are the signs consistent in size, shape, and verbage? Do some restricted parking areas have signs by them while others do not? If motorists are required to know about a restricted parking zone despite the lack of a nearby sign, you can argue that this places an undue burden on them which is inconsistent with the intent of the municipal code/statutes, and which deprived you of requisite legal notice.
The instructions on parking tickets can be confusingly worded, perhaps intentionally so. Sometimes they make it totally clear how to plead 'guilty' to the violation and pay the fine, but it's not at all clear how to proceed if you wish to plead 'not guilty.' If you're even a little confused about the proper procedure, call the phone number on the ticket (usually this is the number for the parking enforcement agency or local court clerk) and make them answer any questions you have. Take notes on the time/date of the call, duration, person you spoke with, and details of the conversation in case you need to refer back to the conversation (particularly if you are given false information, which happens quite a lot).
You may encounter the same types of impediments when you deal with the court clerks. Say you ask for a continuance to get your trial moved out a three weeks. They may tell you patently untrue things like "This judge only allows maximum continuance of two weeks" (ridiculous! what if you're out of town on business for three weeks?) Or they'll tell you the automatic plea deal on the ticket expires before the new date you're asking for. In short, take any "rule" the court clerk tells you with a grain of salt. The clerks are accustomed to dealing with people who let themselves be bullied into simply paying parking fines; this doesn't mean you need to be!
DO YOUR RESEARCH
An hour or two of research is often all it takes to beat a parking ticket. Start by looking up the parking statute or ordinance (I use these terms interchangeably here, but basically an ordinance is part of town/city/county code, versus a statute which is usually state law, and which usually trumps the local laws) that's cited on your ticket. You can probably find it online, but if not, make a quick trip to your local law library and check it there. You can also call the city code enforcement division and ask them where you can find a copy of the statute.
Check the statute to see if there are any circumstances which make the ordinance inapplicable to your case, e.g., it only applies to "unattended vehicles" but you were nearby, or "unoccupied vehicles" but your Great Aunt Eunice was in back. Some ordinances are time-specific (e.g., in some places, you can park in an alley to load/unload for 60 minutes if you're a truck, or 30 minutes if you're in a car, as long as you're loading/unloading "expeditiously"). Also look for time or date restrictions for meters or restricted parking areas -- perhaps you were outside the hours the meter was required/the restriction was applied? Maybe you got several tickets in a short period of time, but your municipality has limits (they all do, otherwise they'd give you sixty parking tickets per hour and finance that new courthouse they've been salivating over!) For example, Syracuse, New York only allows a single violation ticket for off-side parking every 4 hours. So if you got 3 tickets in a 4 hour period (which happens!), you can automatically get 2 of them dismissed!
Look closely at every noun and verb in the statute, from "vehicle" to "parking spot" to "curb"; any one of these could prove to be the key to getting your ticket dismissed. Try to determine whether the statute allows for subjective reasoning. In other words, does the ordinance has phrases like "safety permitting," or "if practicable," you can argue that that condition was not present in your case. Take nothing for granted, not even the legal definition of "parking space" that's used in your jurisdiction! 8 times out of 10, parking tickets are beaten on technicalities, not on arguing he-said/she-said with the meter maid in court.
Be sure to look up your local signage requirements. These can usually be found in the same section of law/municipal code as the statute you're charged with violating. Generally speaking, your local government needs to provide adequate notice of any parking restrictions. Your state may require signs, painted pavement stripes of a certain color or pattern (if they were painted with the wrong color or pattern, you've got a serious argument for dismissal; see below for an example), or painted curbs. Many municipalities have not bothered to maintain these markings, or to keep them consistent from one block to the next, giving you cause to get your ticket dismissed -- namely, because the parking space was not in legal compliance with local and/or state ordinances (check both, they only need to be in violation of one for you to prevail).
Just What is Parking Court?
Parking court is sort of a Frankenstein's monster cobbled together from parts of both wings of the justice system, that is, civil law and criminal law. When you got your driver's license, you signed a contract with the state wherein you agreed to abide by the state's rules in exchange for the "privilege" of driving on its roads. Thus, when you violate that contract, say by parking in a no parking zone, the state can come after you for a civil penalty in the form of a monetary fine. Generally speaking, the government can generally only restrict parking on public roads/public spaces, with the exception of handicapped parking zones (which obviously wouldn't be reserved for very long on private property, if the law didn't apply there).
Traffic and parking courts nationwide represent what many legal critics call "Supermarket Justice", geared more toward getting through a large volume of cases and collecting money than dispensing justice. The fundamental rights guaranteed to the accused in other criminal cases fall by the wayside; good luck getting a public defender, a jury of your peers, or even a stenographer, in traffic or parking court. Fortunately, these courts have another thing in common: they try to separate you from your money as expeditiously as possible, and in doing so, rely on the average motorist's ignorance of the law.
We all have friends, relatives, or even spouses who can't understand why anyone would bother fighting a ticket. "Just pay it," they exclaim, "it's easier than fighting it and you'll just lose anyway!" This passive, "go along to get along" attitude is what allows the traffic/parking fine system to thrive in its present state. In contrast, if even half of licensed drivers fought every ticket they got, the government wouldn't bother issuing tickets for trivial crimes, because it just wouldn't be a profitable endeavor. Remember, if the founding fathers had had such a passive "grin and bear it" attitude, America would probably still be a British colony. By fighting a ticket, you're merely requiring the government to live by its own book of rules (the fact that this book of rules is quite extensive, and full of technicalities which may help you, is merely a bonus).
Not Particularly Appealing
The written description on many parking tickets suggests that you can "appeal" it. Legally speaking, this is not technically an "appeal", but rather, an administrative hearing or lower court hearing. In order to facilitate separating you from your hard-earned money, many jurisdictions require you to "appeal" your parking violation by mail before you're allowed to make an appearance (a hearing in front of a judge or other official). The instructions for how to fight your ticket can be intentionally confusing: the ticket will give you half a dozen different ways to pay, but may make it very hard to "appeal." When in doubt, call the phone number on the ticket and ask for assistance. One major reason to pursue an in-person hearing rather than settling for an "appeal" by mail is that, if you attend a hearing, the meter maid is required to show up. If he/she doesn't attend, then the prosecution is depriving you of your constitutional right to face your accuser. Obviously, you can't take advantage of this kind of circumstance if you contest the ticket in writing, so it's always better to request a full hearing.
In jurisdictions requiring a written "appeal" before you can get an actual hearing before a judge, this step is generally just a formality. In the written appeal, you're basically asking the parking enforcement people to dismiss their own ticket, so in most cases, you can expect your "appeal" to be rejected without even being considered unless it's obviously indefensible (e.g., you got 5 tickets for the same violation in the same hour). Still, you'll probably have to jump through this hoop before you're allowed to appear before a judge and actually be heard.
You don't need to be nervous bout making a court appearance. As long as you don't lie or insult the judge, the worst that can happen is that you have to pay the fine on your ticket, and possibly an additional $10 or so in court costs. And given the salaries of the judge, clerks, bailiffs, courtroom security, cop, and other court personnel, believe me, this $10 is a bargain -- by going to trial, you are easily costing the government more money than it stood to make from your fine. And remember, this is the worst-case scenario, because if your case gets dismissed, you pay neither the fine nor court costs!
The trial (sometimes called a final hearing) is where all your preparation comes together. Here is where technicalities will be exploited, and where you'll have a chance to cross-examine the meter maid or cop who issued your ticket. Now, the question often arises as to how far you can go when making arguments. For example, it's quite conceivable that you'll want to make an impassioned plea about your due process rights being grievously trampled as a result of an incorrect license plate digit on the citation. The standard taught to future litigators in most American law schools is that of the "straight-faced argument". More formally, the attorney has a duty to make any and all arguments on behalf of his client, only withholding such an argument if it is so patently absurd that he cannot present it to the court with a straight face. I think that is a great standard to use in parking court; your medical, insurance, and consumer product bills are all higher as a result of this rule being taken to the extreme in tort cases, so you might as well use it in your own defense now.
As far as schedule, note that if the clerk allows you to pick the time of day for an appearance, recent research suggests that judges are most likely to rule on behalf of defendants first thing in the morning (just after breakfast), or immediately after lunch.
On the day of your hearing, bring three copies of everything you want the court to look at. One for you to keep and refer to, one for the meter maid/police officer who issued the ticket, and one for the judge. You should also bring printed copies of all relevant ordinances/statutes! You can may want to highlight the portions that are relevant to your case. Sad though it may be, meter maids and police officers routinely misinform judges about what the law specifically says to bolster their case. Whether this is done out of ignorance or dishonesty doesn't matter, but it will help your case immeasurably if you can catch them in the act by having the statutes on hand (with some extra copies for the judge!)
At the hearing, you'll be allowed to speak on your own behalf. Here, you'll want to cite any relevant affirmative defenses you found in the statute. For example, that your car was not unattended because you were simply helping your Great Aunt Eunice into her building. Or, you were just dropping a friend off at the bus stop so he could go to Vegas and marry his Craigslist-bride. Or, perhaps there was an emergency, and you stopped to extinguish a combusting baby. Likewise, cite any mitigating factors (was the 'no parking' sign missing? was it blocked by trees, or a big truck?) and state a conclusion as to why this matters (e.g., you were deprived of notice of the restricted parking zone because the sign was blocked or missing).
Don't argue that you didn't know the law, that you can't afford to pay, that you were going to move your car but something came up, etc. These statements have no place in a courtroom unless you're pleading guilty and hoping for judicial mercy (unlikely, in a court that's basically designed to separate you from your money!) None of these are valid defenses, and hearing any of these excuses will be a sure sign that you're either bullshitting, or that the judge can't dismiss your violation because you're guilty.
Valuable tip: be prepared for the judge to interrupt the flow of your presentation by asking questions. These interruptions will probably require you to change the order of your arguments on-the-fly. If you're new to public speaking and/or making oral arguments, the Method of Loci is a tremendously effective method for keeping a mental checklist of points you want to make. I use it every time I go to court! Whatever you do, don't tell the judge "I'll get to that later." They're not accustomed to being told to wait, and won't appreciate your suggestion.
Another tip: if you're ever asked whether you have any more questions for the judge, any more exhibits to enter, any additional comments you'd like to make, etc., never say "no"! That's far too absolute an answer, and may lead to the judge ending your trial before you're done. Always respond with "not at this time" to keep your options open later.
Here is an example argument. In this case, a defendant in Florida parked his motorcycle in an unmarked triangular striped area which happened to be next to a marked handicapped parking space. He filled out a Request for Citation Dismissal with the City of Sarasota, which the City did not take seriously (see: Arguments, attempt #1).
He then requested a hearing before a judge (see: Arguments, attempt #2). As circumstances turned out, this second argument was presented at a hearing rather than mailed in as a motion for dismissal. The defendant asked the judge to admit the photos as exhibits, and then walked through these same arguments with the judge. In the end, what convinced the judge to dismiss the ticket is that the parking space, as was only realized by the defendant after a trip to his local law library, was improperly painted, and thus in violation of Florida's marking statutes. During the hearing, the meter maid lied and said no blue paint was required in a handicapped parking zone, but the defendant had brought copies of the statute to court, earning the meter maid a lecture by the judge.
Standards of Proof
In many jurisdictions, the standard of proof for civil violations (e.g., parking tickets or lesser moving violations where jail time isn't an issue) is a preponderance of the evidence. This means that the judge need only be 51% certain of your guilt to convict you of the charge. The right to this higher standard of evidence is another area wherein your basic rights have been thrown to the wolves to make parking court a more efficient and profitable endeavor for the state. (In contrast, for criminal trials, the standard is beyond a reasonable doubt, wherein the judge or jury must be approximately 90% certain of your guilt.)
If your defense is based on situational factors that aren't mentioned on the ticket (e.g., your vehicle was still occupied at the time it was alleged to have been unattended), then you may need to cross-examine the meter maid/officer who wrote your ticket.
If your parking ticket was written by a cop, he/she will generally start by giving a standardized spiel about how they observed your vehicle illegally parked, etc. By "standardized spiel" I mean just that; the cop will look at the checkboxes on the front of your ticket (and possibly the additional checkboxes on the back of his copy of the ticket), and give a scripted (and usually at least somewhat inaccurate) narrative of what happened. After this narrative, you will get a chance to question the officer. If you heard anything inaccurate or improbable during this narrative, be sure and ask some questions about it. If you're asking the cop/meter maid to confirm something that's obviously a bit of a stretch, it may help to preface your question with "Reminding you that you are under oath...."
Be sure and ask questions about any details the meter maid didn't write down (you'll know what was, and was not, written down after you get a copy of the front and back of the meter maid's/officer's copy of the ticket from the court clerk). This is where you'll want to bring up descriptive errors on the ticket, such as your vehicle being a different color than what's listed. This type of error can be used to create doubt as to the officer's observational capacity, and/or to conditions at the time (such as darkness) that would make observations difficult even by a professional who was trained to make them.
I highly recommend you check out The Ten Commandments of Cross-Examination. It's got some great examples and cross-examination strategies.
Good luck with your trial, and please write to us and let us know how it goes!
Frequently Asked Questions
I missed my court date/didn't find out about it until after it went down. What now?
Call the court clerk to check the status of your case. There's always a small chance that it got rescheduled at the last minute due to the judge eating some bad clams, and there is no sense assuming the worst. If your hearing did indeed take place without you or anyone representing you, chances are a "Default Judgment" was entered against you. Basically, it's like forfeiting a sports game; you didn't show up, so you lost.
If this is the case, your best option is probably to file a Motion to Set Aside Default Judgment explaining that your failure to show up was unavoidable and unintentional, and asking the court very nicely to give you a chance to have your constitutionally-guaranteed chance to defend yourself. The suggestions for Motions for Extension of Time on the Traffic Case Appeal Guide are definitely relevant for the Motion to Set Aside, including the one about going old-school and hand-writing your motion.
What happens if I simply refuse to pay my fine?
First, more fines: the amount of your parking fine can double or triplei, and collection fees may be added to it. If you wait long enough, it may get sent to a collection agency, although these agencies generally don't put a lot of effort into harassing someone over a $50 fine since it's simply not profitable for them to pursue past the first few threatening calls/letters.
It may go no further than this. However, you may eventually be blocked from renewing your vehicle registration and/or your driver's license. The court could also technically issue a bench warrant, which basically means if you get pulled over for some reason later on, the cops can haul you in and hold you until you pay the remaining balance of the overdue fine. They may also put a boot on your car. Removing that boot can result in another fine. (Unless you change the padlock and put that same boot on the wheel of an unattended parking enforcement vehicle, which may result in a great deal of personal satisfaction.) (Just kidding, don't do this.)
My ticket or summons is unsigned. Do I need to show up to court?
An unsigned summons is considered a minor error, and so the prosecution has the ability to amend the complaint with a signature right up until the time of the trial. It is possible that a motion to dismiss in advance of the court date would work, but then the prosecution could just re-issue the amended ticket and start the process over. In short, you might be able to buy yourself some time by getting an unsigned ticket dismissed, and there's always the chance that the meter maid would be too lazy or forgetful to re-issue the ticket, but in most cases, challenging an unsigned summons is unlikely to get you out of a ticket entirely.
What if I never received the original cituation (or, I got pissed and tore it up and threw it in the sewer)?
Just because a parking ticket was placed on your vehicle doesn't mean you received it. It could have blown away, or someone could have swiped it before you got back to your vehicle. In any case, you'll need to write to the court and ask for a copy fo the ticket, and if you missed the hearing date already, ask that the default judgement be reversed so you can have your constitutionally-guaranteed day in court.
I lost my case. Can I appeal?
Maybe! Either out of corruption or laziness, the appellate courts in some states (such as California) only allow you to appeal the initial administrative ruling on your ticket to court once. You may not be allowed to do any subsequent appeals beyond the local court. (Although you could potentially challenge the constitutionality of this rule in court, and include that as part of your appeal!)
I've heard meter maids use chalk marks on tires to figure out if a car has been moved since last time they came by. Is it legal to wipe those chalk marks off my tires?
Many jurisdictions contend that it's a ticketable offense to remove or alter the chalk marks they've placed on your tires. However, this does not seem to be settled law; that is, there haven't actually been any high court decisions affirming you don't have the right to wipe marks off your own vehicle, simply because meter maids can't be bothered to come up with a more reliable system for tracking how long you parked. If I got a ticket for wiping chalk marks off, I would absolutely fight it!
Isn't your use of the term "meter maid" disrespectful/offensive to parking enforcement officers?
I certainly hope so!
Is it legal to give the finger to a meter maid?
Probably. In fact, even flipping the bird at cops seems to be protected free speech (and meter maids aren't even cops) under the First Amendment, at least if you live in the 2nd Federal Circuit (which includes New York, Vermont, and Connecticut). Check out this link for a particularly amusing example.
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