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Ordinance on parking tickets raises questions

'Stopgap' measure would work around state rules

Posted: April 30, 2013 - 5:01pm  |  Updated: May 1, 2013 - 12:05am

The City and Borough of Juneau has found itself in a dilemma as, under court rules that took effect April 15, any citation for an infraction not personally served to the alleged offender by a police officer is now considered "deficient."

The rules — a strict interpretation of House Bill 386, which passed with little objection in 2010 with the intent of standardizing police procedure — mean that the time-honored tactic of tucking a ticket underneath an illegally parked vehicle’s windshield wiper is no longer a valid practice in communities that leave it to the state courts to handle parking ticket appeals, as Juneau does.

In response to the new rules, the Borough Assembly held a special meeting Monday evening for the sole purpose of introducing an ordinance that would redefine parking violations as civil offenses, effectively turning over responsibility for enforcing them to the CBJ.

Assemblymember Jesse Kiehl described the ordinance Tuesday morning as an “easy fix” for the parking ticket problem, but he said he has some problems with the proposal as drafted.

“It has some difficulties down the road,” said Kiehl.

Among Kiehl’s concerns is the restructuring of the appeals process under the municipal government instead of in the court system.

“We have a unitary city government,” Kiehl said. “We don’t have three branches of city government. That’s not set up that way. It’s much more efficient. But state government and the federal government have that inefficiency for a reason.”

Under the draft ordinance introduced Monday, code enforcement officers would be empowered to mail a “notice of violation” to an alleged violator or affix the notice to their vehicle. The city manager would be able to designate somebody to hear appeals, but that process would no longer be done in court.

City Attorney John Hartle acknowledged the issue Tuesday afternoon. But Hartle said it is simply no longer feasible to have the courts handle parking tickets in Juneau.

“The judiciary won’t let us unless the officer waits by the car until the driver comes back and hands it to him or her, and that just doesn’t work,” said Hartle. “So we don’t have the option of going to court with the typical parking ticket.”

The ordinance under consideration by the CBJ Assembly is based on the Ketchikan Gateway Borough’s system, Hartle said.

Ketchikan Gateway Borough Attorney Scott A. Brandt-Erichsen said the administrative appeal process in his jurisdiction has gone “very smoothly.”

“In terms of the impact on the consumer, and by consumer I mean the person getting the parking ticket, there’s not a whole lot of change in how they interact with the system,” Brandt-Erichsen said.

According to Brandt-Erichsen, the outcome of the administrative appeal can be appealed to the Ketchikan Superior Court if the appellant feels he or she did not get a fair hearing by the borough, although he said he is unaware of such a court appeal taking place.

Of Juneau possibly implementing a system similar to the one used by the Ketchikan Gateway Borough, Brandt-Erichsen said, “I think what you’ll find the process should work pretty smoothly, administratively, if it goes likewise, and people still have the opportunity for a hearing if they want, and if they feel that hearing was not fairly conducted … they can get to court if they’re so motivated.”

Assemblymember Jerry Nankervis, a retired Juneau Police Department captain, said he has some questions about the proposed ordinance as well.

“All of my questions are regarding the necessity of the steps,” said Nankervis. “I like keeping things simple.”

Nankervis said he feels that a section of the ordinance under what information, such as the nature of the alleged violation, the time it occurred and the amount of the fine, must be listed on the notice of violation that provides for the city manager to require additional information beyond those details is not needed.

“It seems like plenty of information, and to me, I didn’t see the necessity of having that last item on there,” said Nankervis.

Both Nankervis and Kiehl also voiced skepticism about a provision requiring the hearing officer to submit a written decision within 15 days, as opposed to simply ruling on the spot as a judge would in most cases.

“I think the hearing officer could just make that decision right then,” Nankervis said.

Kiehl named two other parts of the ordinance that trouble him: the CBJ’s ability, or lack thereof, to collect on a parking ticket from someone who simply refuses to pay the fine, and whether the violations hearing officer will be able to consider extenuating circumstances, such as an error in how a driver entered his or her vehicle’s license plate number, in determining whether there has been a parking violation.

“Following the rules matters,” said Kiehl. “But so does reasonable human judgment.”

The CBJ will be able to address both concerns, Hartle predicted.

“We will need to develop a set of standards,” Hartle said of the discretion permitted to the hearing officer. “With the parking registration system, you know, if somebody transposes two characters on their license plate and they come in … well, that’s an easy opportunity to dismiss the ticket. Yeah. That would still be an option.”

The ordinance as drafted reads in part, “The hearing officer’s decisions shall be based solely upon the law and the facts applicable to the case. If a violation is legally determined to have occurred, the hearing officer shall not substitute his or her judgment for that of the enforcement officer or parking enforcement officer as to whether a notice of violation should have been issued.”

As Hartle noted, the ordinance remains a draft and is subject to change.

As for the matter of collecting on unpaid parking tickets, Hartle said, the CBJ would consider unpaid tickets to be a debt to the city.

The Ketchikan Gateway Borough has referred parking fine delinquents to collection agencies in the past, according to Brandt-Erichsen.

Hartle noted that the “parallel system” of classifying parking violations as civil offenses does not affect other infractions, such as running a red light or drinking alcohol in public, for which a police officer would reasonably be expected to hand the alleged violator a citation.

“If it’s things that are normally personally served, then that’s the way we’ll leave it,” said Hartle.

Regardless of whether or how the CBJ moves to adopt a workaround to the state’s limits on how parking citations are issued, everyone seems to agree that state lawmakers did not mean to place those restrictions on parking tickets.

Rep. Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage, who introduced H.B. 386 at the request of the Alaska Department of Public Safety, said the legislation’s effect on parking tickets in certain municipalities is an “unintended consequence as a result of that court rule change.”

“There was absolutely no discussion of parking citations when this legislation went through the legislative process,” said Hawker. “It was specifically intended to make it both consistent and less expensive for all of the agencies within the Department of Public Safety to issue and manage the public citation process.”

The rule change does not affect Anchorage, as Hawker noted. Anchorage does not consider parking violations to be criminal offenses, and it has its own appeal process.

Kiehl, who is staff to Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, said he is involved in drafting a bill to fix the requirement that parking tickets be delivered personally.

Hawker said he is considering whether such a change is necessary.

“It wouldn’t be the first time that I’ve seen a complicated piece of legislation that required tune-up in a further legislative session,” Hawker remarked.

The next regular legislative session begins next January. That likely means that the CBJ’s “easy fix,” if adopted, will have to suffice at least until next year.

“I hope that what the city’s doing is a stopgap, but we have to treat it as permanent, because it could be,” Kiehl said.

Hartle, who plans to retire as city attorney at the end of June, said he hopes the CBJ reverts back to the current system if the state approves a workaround in statute.

“There’s a lot to be said for an independent judiciary and a courtroom,” said Hartle.

Brandt-Erichsen, who said his borough has been handling its own parking tickets for about 15 years, has a different perspective.

“The court system in general prefers not to deal with things like parking tickets,” Brandt-Erichsen said. “Because of the high volume, it’s not a real cost-efficient way to process these sorts of violations. So I’m not really surprised by the impact of the court rule change as far as parking tickets, because processing them administratively is a lot smoother.”

Contact reporter Mark D. Miller at 523-2279 or at mark.d.miller@juneauempire.com.

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