Unknown Ordinances: Why Fines Aren’t Fine For Budget Use

Pop quiz: In the city of Minneapolis how far from a driveway should your bumper be when you park on the street? Four feet, two feet, five feet, one inch, ten feet?

Are either of these cars illegal?

I asked this question to ten residents walking around the St. Anthony Main neighborhood. If they are indicative of most, then few of you reading this will know the answer. This article addresses that information gap by filling you in on the common unknown laws in the city. Then, part two of the piece makes a case for what should be done on account of it.

Part 1: Just the Facts

It can be hard to know all the rules on parking. There are 26 statutes alone on where not to do so in Minneapolis. Here’s a quick heads-up on a few commonly broken ones (and commonly-ticketed ones) due to people’s lack of familiarity with them.

#1: 478.90(b) You must park at least five feet from a driveway or alley.
#2: 478.90(g) You must park 30 feet away from any school sign along the side of the road.
#3: 478.160 It is illegal to leave your keys in the car unattended.
#4: License Plate Presentation—there are several regulation in this arena that are described below.

Let’s dig into these a little bit.

I compiled data given to me by the city, and I asked hearing officers—the folks who you see to contest a ticket—about which laws were commonly contested and the excuses given by the offenders.

#1: In 2011, Minneapolis officers wrote 12,692 tickets because folks parked too close to a driveway or alley. (The car on the right side of the diagram above is fit to be ticketed.) That’s a lot of people who were in a hurry, took a chance, or perhaps didn’t know.

But you do now. So hopefully we can lower the 35 per day the city handed out in 2011 at $32.00 a pop.

Here are some commonly given complaints as reported by our hearing officers, none of which are valid excuses:

1) There are no signs or yellow markings
2) Their vehicle is not in the way of entry or blocking the driveway.
3) It is the offender’s driveway and it should not matter if they park in front of their own driveway.

The worst part of breaking this rule, particularly if don’t it even exists, is that not only do you get a ticket, but you have only so much time to move your car before it’s towed. Suddenly, you’re running around for half a day and looking at almost $300 in fees. Ouch!

#2: Most people know not to park within 30 feet of the stop sign—probably because it’s a state law taught to us in Driver’s Ed, and also because it’s often stated on the signs themselves. But in Minneapolis it’s also illegal to park within 30 feet of any school sign along the side of the road.
Well, whether because of ignorance or ignoring this or the stop sign rule, Minneapolis cars were ticketed a whopping 6,114 times in 2011 at a penalty of 32 big ones.

Common complaints:

1) There are no signs or yellow markings.
2) Did not know the rule.

#3: Leaving your keys in your car is one of those acts that hardly needs to be legislated, but there are a few key months when people do this regularly: December, January, and February. When it’s cold, people like to warm up their car. And apparently, several people may or may not have known the law making it illegal to leave keys in the car unattended. In 2011, 261 tickets were issued at $42/per.

A caveat to this law: if you have a remote starter it is okay for your car to run unattended. I found this out when I started my car from inside a restaurant and watched from the window as a squad car pulled up behind it and sat there. Soon I left the restaurant and as I approached my car, the cop spoke to me through his speaker to come over to his car. I walked up to his window (kind of a neat role-reversal) and he asked if I had auto-start in the car. I said I did, and he said that I was fine, then, but that it was illegal if I started it with the keys inside.
I walked away thinking, “I had no idea that was a law.” And recalled the dozens of times I was an accidental law-breaker a couple winters prior when I’d start my car on a bitter winter morning with one set of keys, lock it with the other set, and go inside to let the car thaw. (And then the cynic in me also thought about the hundreds of times I’d seen cop cars idling all by their lonesome.)

#4: License Plate Presentation: Scenario: you buy tabs for your plates and one doesn’t stick or falls off. Oh well, you think, it’s obvious you bought them as one plate evidences. Sorry, Charlie. It doesn’t matter if you paid your yearly license tab fee. What matters is that you didn’t follow the law that says both plates have to say so. License plate regulations are state laws, but many Minneapolitans were guilty in 2011 of this or one of these related offenses: plates must be visible, and plates must be on both the rear and front bumpers.

Between these three infractions alone, 6801 tickets were written. And this time, at the state level, a ticket costs some serious coin: $108. There are a lot of misconceptions about these regulations as indicated by the excuses heard and provided by our good hearing officers:

1) Plate is on the dashboard or in the window.
2) “Can’t they see in the computer or see that I bought the tabs in time?”
3) “I did not know you could not put a clear cover over the plate. It is not obstructing the view of the plate.” (MN Statute but only enforced in MPLS.)
4) “I got this expired tabs ticket and I wasn’t driving. It was just parked out in front of my house.”
5) “I did not know I could get more than one ticket for this offense.”

This set of laws also brings up the relationship between city and state. Tickets handed out in Minneapolis—whether state or local law—are split between the “community” where the offense occurred (e.g. Minneapolis) and the state—with the community getting the bigger hunk of the 80/20 split.

Combining just these four examples above, we see that Minneapolis, after giving the state its share, took in just over a $1 million dollars.


Part 2: Just My Opinion

It damages city/citizen relations when people get ticketed for laws they never had the reasonable chance to know existed.

It’s also easier than ever for a city to communicate with residents what the laws are: website, text messages. With technology, this seems like an easy problem to fix or at least try and fix.

The problem is money—no, not money spent informing the people, money from tickets which are revenue for the city. As long as the city gains financially from our law-breaking, they’ll always rely on, and thus hope for us, to do so. This is a dangerous reliance as the incentive of financial gain will interfere with an institution that should be focused purely on helping the city run safely and smoothly. Plus, citizens are also left wondering each time they get a ticket whether they got it because they broke a law or because the city was short on cash.

The solution is to remove fines and tickets from general budget use. (I visited the mayor about this, but he wasn’t interested in the solution. Following a meeting, I spoke with his aide about getting the word out in the form of an article to inform citizens and give them a heads up about the offenses commonly committed. He liked the idea, asked me to write the piece, but the city doesn’t seem too interested in it any longer.)

The solution of cutting the financial cord of fines and city budget is a great middle-ground. Here’s what I mean by that: parking too close to a driveway is only ever a problem if it, well, causes a problem—-someone blocked in or their view obstructed as they pull out. Why not ticket responsively, then?—only when there’s a complaint called in. The problem with this is that if I’m in an emergency and need to get out of my driveway and there’s a car blocking it, it’s already too late to help. So I understand proactive law enforcement. The middle ground is that we should have a proactive force, but that they should do so without the motivation to raise money, taking out their tape measure—which they do—to get anyone within 5 feet. (A friend of mine got a ticket once for parking 4 feet 5 inches away from the driveway as indicated on her ticket.)

Also, as law enforcement doubles as a vehicle for funding, fines rise. In 2010, those $32 dollar tickets mentioned above were $24. For those of you who sympathize–or are included–in the population of those just squeaking by, how fair are these increases? How big of a hit is a $108 dollar ticket?

Appropriately, on April 4th, I went to see a hearing officer about a parking ticket I got. Impossible as it is for me to not be biased about the scenario, I can say with all honesty that on the day of my ticket I parked a distance from a driveway that appeared safe and reasonable. I was even conscious of the law because I was researching this piece and got out to look and see that I was okay. I didn’t have my tape measure with me, but perhaps I should have. I got back to my car later to find that little present waiting under the wiper blade. I opened up the red-striped envelop to read that I had parked 3 feet 11 inches from the driveway. Worse still, was that my car was slated to be towed. Had I not had returned when I did, I could have been the one wasting half my day and suffering a significant blow to my finances.

(I feel let down about my city when I get fined because of a ticket collector justifying a need for their job, under orders of a city tempted by easy cash.)

At the hearing office, as I waited for my name to be called, I looked around the waiting room and saw a sea of faces represented those who need to fight these tickets the hardest. Some are their due to irresponsibility; some are there because they don’t know the laws; some may have been ticketed improperly (a probable side-effect of relying on tickets for the budget). All are there because they can’t afford them:

My name gets called, sit down in the hearing officer’s office, and the middle-aged white gentleman handles my case generously. (The hearing officers are often very helpful, by the way.)

Just as I’m about to leave his office, he mentions that the five-foot rule actually starts at the end of the curb curve. Thus, my understanding of the law—even after having read it word for word—was wrong. It only says in the statute: “You must park at least five feet from a driveway or alley.” But where does a driveway officially end?—apparently at the end of its flare out to meet the street which suddenly changes my diagram significantly:

"Cha-ching", says the city cash register.

I get up to leave the office as the next ticket-contester walks in. I walk down the hall, stop, and turn back around to make certain of what he told me. I stick my head back in his office and ask the hearing officer to reiterate his claim about the law. He did, the idea being that a fire truck can be able to get into a driveway and clear the corner, he said.

Five feet from the end of the curb flare. I’m willing to bet, right now, that every car in Minneapolis parked adjacent to a driveway or alley is doing so illegally.

A city, any city, would be better off not letting financial gain muddy up the waters of keeping our streets safe, keeping strong city/citizen relations, and remove a system that disproportionally hurts poorer folks. This whole system of ticketing is very normal, however, and the acceptance of this practice grows stronger during economic periods where the city needs funding sources where it can get them. I say, however, that it is during financial difficulty that the need to remove tickets as a city funding source increases as there’s increased incentive to abuse the funding source.

So tell your councilperson to cut that cord of cash.

But if we can’t clean this monetary moral hazard from our city then at least you now know the laws mentioned above. I hope this article gets in front of many people’s eyes so there are fewer folks ticketed for being four feet from a driveway.

Safe parking.

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