The highest court in Massachusetts believes there is no due process problem with charging motorists $300 to challenge a $5 or $15 parking ticket. On Thursday, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the appeal procedures in the city of Northampton satisfied constitutional requirements even though motorists were denied an in-person hearing to contest the legitimacy of a citation. The city only allowed people either to pay the fine in full or send “a signed statement explaining his objections.”
Motorists Vincent Gillespie and Edward Hamel became two of the first people ever to go to the great expense of challenging tickets received in 2005. The non-refundable fee to appeal is $300, which the court keeps even if the driver is found innocent. Gillespie and Hamel lined up the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and National Motorists Association (NMA) to help argue that having a city parking clerk make the final determination on ticket challenges violates their right to an impartial hearing.
“Parking ticket receipts play an important part in a municipality’s budget,” ACLU attorney William C. Newman argued. “A parking clerk therefore has a responsibility to raise through parking tickets the money budgeted for him or her to collect.”
Attorney General Martha Coakley defended Northampton, arguing that fees for access to courts were reasonable. The NMA disagreed.
“There is no such thing as a ‘reasonable non-refundable fee’ to exercise the right to defend one’s self in a legitimate court of law,” NMA attorney John Holevoet wrote in an amicus brief. “The right to defend one’s self is fundamental to due process and must be unfettered, or as stated in the Massachusetts Constitution, ‘freely’ provided.”
The high court dismissed the ACLU and NMA arguments, insisting the concern about the lack of impartiality of the parking clerk was entirely speculative. With the usual parking fine topping out at about $100, the court found an accused motorist has plenty of protection for a very small property interest because mistakes are rare.
“The risk of an erroneous deprivation of that interest is rather low,” Justice Robert J. Cordy wrote for the court. “Where the citation of illegally parked vehicles is susceptible to human error (i.e., a marked sign fell down or a meter was misread), [the city’s appeal process] provides ample procedural rights to minimize the risk…. Municipalities issue millions of parking citations annually, and the fiscal and administrative burdens of additional or substitute procedural requirements would be overwhelming.”
The high court also has a case pending on the high fees charged for drivers wishing to appeal speeding tickets. The court described a comparison of parking and moving violation tickets as “apples-to-oranges” suggesting a ruling in the next case could have a different outcome.