Code: Rich | [This space left intentionally blank.]

Nov/10

22

Legal Fictions

This weekend, while attending a wedding in the Twin Cities area, I received a parking ticket for violating a winter parking ban. (As it turns out, you can’t park overnight on any street in this jurisdiction from November 1 through April 1*.)

After getting this ticket, I researched winter parking ordinances a bit. They were something I never really cared about before since I’ve always had a yard, parking lot, or garage to park in. I can understand and support the city’s interest in properly cleaning streets to keep traffic flowing safely and smoothly.

In the course of my Internet searching, I found a number of people saying these ordinances were stupid because they applied regardless of the weather. So, one alternative would be to only restrict parking if it had snowed. But then, the driver would be in the position of going to bed on a clear night thinking they were okay and waking up to find they had been issued a ticket or towed. From the city’s point of view, this would mean there’d be more cars on the streets when they tried to plow, which either defeats the point of the ordinance or forces them to tow everyone (which is unpopular and difficult, especially considering that, by definition, the streets need plowing).

I can’t say that I have a better proposed ordinance. That said, this question remains: how is an out-of-town visitor supposed to know about these restrictions? There’s where the title comes from. The courts maintain this legal fiction that people are aware of every applicable law. (“Ignorance of the law is no excuse.”) Of course, with tens of thousands of pages of laws, there’s simply no way the average person can be aware. But we all try to act in a reasonable way, assume the laws are reasonable, and thus believe we’ll avoid breaking them. And, to help us out, the government puts up notices. This is why we have speed limit signs that say 55 mph, even though that’s a statutory speed limit in Minnesota.

Of course, there were no signs about the winter restrictions. However, from my previous experience in Minneapolis proper, there are such signs. And, as far as I understand, Minneapolis only applies these rules to major routes, not every single street. (I was not parked on a major street in this city.) I’m well aware of the fact that parking is a mess in urban areas, so I always look for signs and obey them. As I saw no signs on the street, I had no idea of this restriction.

So I called the city to find out how they thought I should know about this ordinance. The bottom line was that said the person I was visiting should’ve told me about it. Of course, in my case, they weren’t aware. Whether they should’ve been or not is irrelevant. The city is fining *me*. If the person I’m staying with is supposed to tell me about this ordinance, then the fact that they didn’t should be a defense for me (and presumably a crime** for them). Of course, it’s not. It’s just a convenient way to excuse not putting up signs.

To be clear, I’m not arguing that the people I was visiting should be charged with a crime or have to pay my ticket or anything. I’m simply pointing out the logical absurdity of the city’s position.

From what I hear, my city has an (unofficial?) policy of voiding your first “[winter] calendar parking” citation upon request. This seems like a reasonable balance between the city’s interests and visitor’s interests that still allows the city to save the cost of all the signs that would be required.

This citation was printed on US Letter (i.e. regular size) sized thermal paper (i.e. “receipt paper”), which was interesting. I’m sure this saves the officer a lot of time when filling out tickets and also ensures the ticket is readable. With such a fancy computerized system, it seems like they could easily automate the first-time waiver. In other words, they enter my license plate number just like they do now, and instead of printing a citation, it prints a warning. But if the next day/week/year they run me again, it prints out a citation. (Given that license plate and driver’s license numbers change, they’d probably have to store both as well as the name, but could then be reasonably accurate and err on the side of the vehicle owner(s).)

Alternatively, since this is an issue all throughout Minnesota, we could standardize this in a state law. This would simplify the restrictions by eliminating local variations. As a state law, it would also get more publicity when it was being debated in the legislature than a city ordinance would.

* As an aside, this is a strange choice for a cut-off date. Coupled with “through”, it means that you can’t park overnight until April 2nd. It seems like March 31st would’ve been a cleaner cut-off date.
** I use “crime” in the lay sense here; Minnesota law says petty misdemeanors do “not constitute a crime” and thus they can fine you without providing a jury trial or court-appointed lawyer (for indigent persons).

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