By on July 15, 2011

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.

Source: Gillespie v. City of Northampton (Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, 7/14/2011)

[Courtesy: Thenewspaper.com]

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18 Comments on “Massachusetts Court Denies Meaningful Right to Contest Parking Tickets...”


  • avatar
    PartsUnknown

    I’m a Mass resident and my wife recently went to court to appeal a $225 speeding ticket. She had to pay a $25 fee for the right to do so. The ticket was thrown out and the incident expunged from her record, so the $25 was money well spent. It still grates though, to have to pay for right to defend yourself in what is essentially an administrative hearing. But, $300 to appeal a $15 parking ticket? That seems unnecessarily punitive.

  • avatar
    jjster6

    I grieve for the death of the US Constitution.

    • 0 avatar
      Pch101

      I grieve for the death of the US Constitution.

      This has nothing to do with the US constitution. The state has the right to make parking laws, enforce them, and punish people who allegedly violate them.

      This is one of those great Tenth Amendment/ states rights things that you hear so much about. Unless we get a federal vehicle code, you can expect to see more of these capricious laws, which at least one state has decided are perfectly OK.

      • 0 avatar
        anahit

        The US Constitution most certainly applies here. State fines against citizens involves a property right, therefore triggering due process through the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution.

        The US Constitution provides the floor of rights for citizens. State constitutions can give citizens more rights but not lesser or fewer rights.

        It’s the 10th Amendment that has nothing to do with the case (at least as far as the TTAC piece describes things, I’m not going to read the Court opinion unless I’m getting paid for it). You make it sound like the issue is statutory preemption which, were it true, could trigger the 10th Amendment but the TTAC piece clearly states it is procedural.

        One can certainly disagree with the Court’s opinion but no doubt they applied the proper balancing test under the federal Constitution. Because the federal Constitution, like, applies.

      • 0 avatar
        Pch101

        State fines against citizens involves a property right, therefore triggering due process through the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution.

        If you have a case cite that shows that a federal court has decided that states can’t assess costs for parking-related matters, then I’d like to see it. But I’m pretty sure that you don’t.

        If you read the ruling, you will see that the court devoted several paragraphs to reviewing the due process argument and tossed it out. I don’t care for the outcome or buy off on the reasoning, but the court considered it and decided against it. So no, there is no 14th amendment issue here.

      • 0 avatar
        anahit

        I am in no way saying states can’t asess costs for parking.

        It is true this fine is probably not a “property interest” under Board of Regents v. Roth. However, the US Constitution most certainly applies despite you saying “This has nothing to do with the US Constitution.” Procedural due process under the US Constitution applies and the Court opinion makes it clear.

        I read the due process part of the opinion because, based on your assertion, I was concerned it was some horribly ridiculous opinion. It is not. For Pete’s sake, the Court goes through the applicable Mathews v. Eldridge due process analysis that they say is required (Section 3(a)(ii) of the Opinion). The Court would not apply a Mathews due process analysis if procedural due process didn’t apply.

      • 0 avatar
        Pch101

        However, the US Constitution most certainly applies despite you saying “This has nothing to do with the US Constitution.”

        The ruling dismissed the due process argument. Your appeal above to the 14th amendment was clearly inaccurate.

        As I noted above, the decision in the case comes down to the court’s interpretation of the statute and determining that it conforms with state law that the state has a right to make. The feds didn’t force this decision on the state court; the state court believes that it has the latitude to act and can do something like this without violating federal law (which, given the lack of a federal parking code, isn’t surprising even if it is unfortunate.)

        I read the due process part of the opinion because, based on your assertion, I was concerned it was some horribly ridiculous opinion. It is not.

        I didn’t say that it wasn’t legally consistent or poorly argued. I said that I didn’t like it. I would like to think that a higher court might eventually reverse it, but I’m not holding my breath.

      • 0 avatar
        anahit

        Perhaps this will clear things up.

        Due process absolutely applies, as does the federal Constitution. The Court’s opinion makes it abundantly clear. I fear on a basic level you don’t quite get how the federal Constitution affects state procedures.

        The Court did dismiss the Plaintiff’s due process argument but that does NOT mean due process doesn’t apply. You see, the Plaintiff argued that the State procedures did not meet the level required by procedural due process. The Court found against the Plaintiff by saying that procedural due process had been met by the State structure.

        That is NOT the same as saying due process doesn’t apply. It absolutely does apply and the Court found that it was met. The Plaintiff wanted more due process and the Court said the current level of due process was enough under the US Constitution.

        The Court went through the entire analysis about the application of procedural due process because it completely applies. That is a very basic tenet of con law. Again, if procedural due process didn’t apply, then the Court would not go through the Mathews balancing test. Mathews isn’t about whether procedural due process applies, it’s about whether the procedural structure meets the LEVEL of due process required under the federal Constitution and the particular right allegedly being infringed.

        I can’t make it any more clear. I’m also not going to respond further because either you’re being intentionally obtuse or simply trolling.

      • 0 avatar
        Pch101

        I can’t make it any more clear.

        No, it was clear. Your prior argument about the 14th amendment was wrong, and you don’t want to admit it.

        The state court ruled that there was no due process issue here. That leaves the municipality with the right to carry on with its fee-for-justice program.

        I pointed out — correctly — to the poster above that the federal Constitution did not protect us from this and that this was a state matter. I’m sticking by that point, because it’s accurate.

        In general terms, the Constitution applies to everything, of course. However, what that means in practice is that in many instances, the authority to create law goes to the state and local levels. That most certainly includes parking. The only federal parking regulations of which I am aware are on federal property, so it rarely applies. The appeal to the Constitution sounds really cool, but in practice, the Constitution isn’t going to do squat to help us with matters like this.

  • avatar
    EEGeek

    Agreed – let’s please keep the Federal Government away from regulating parking citations. Is the Supreme Court in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts elected or appointed? Can they realistically be held accountable?

  • avatar
    msquare

    I would argue that any monetary charge to appeal a ticket is in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which says “no state shall … deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

    It was the provision used to kill the practice of the poll tax (tax paid for the right to vote which was used to disenfranchise minorities and immigrants) in the states, something the 24th Amendment only did on the federal level.

    Imposing a fee is by definition unequal protection. The Masshole Supreme Court is dead stinkin’ wrong.

  • avatar
    harshciygar

    I’ve been to Northhampton, and this doesn’t surprise me one bit. It’s a hoity toity hippie town (I know it sounds odd but trust me, that is the best way to describe it.)

    To me it seems obvious that the steep “appeal fee” was put in place to discourage people from appealing in the first place.

    This is hardly the sketchiest thing NoHo has done though. The city also eliminated a booth-run parking garage, replacing it with ticket machines in order to generate more revenue (from double-selling spots and parking fines.)

    • 0 avatar
      Pch101

      To me it seems obvious that the steep “appeal fee” was put in place to discourage people from appealing in the first place.

      If you read the court decision, you can see that the court is saying as much. Not only do they admit that they don’t want to have the appeals, they pretty much applaud the idea of avoiding them — one of the core arguments of the decision is that the claims by those who get the tickets are usually frivolous, and that the state has an interest in discouraging frivolous appeals.

      In other words, since the fines are low and we presume that you are guilty, you should just suck it up and pay it, even if you believe that you aren’t guilty, since you probably are.

  • avatar
    APaGttH

    Ethan Allen, John Hancock, John Adams, and Thomas Paine are spinning in their graves. This is not the same Massachusetts that sent Howe running for his life in 1776.

  • avatar
    PaulVincent

    Massachusetts: Why doesn’t this surprise me?

  • avatar
    Dave W

    On our first visit to Northampton we struggled to find a legal parking space. We got a good laugh when we saw a T shirt proclaiming “Welcome to Northampton, here’s your parking ticket”.


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