Soundings

Max Boot
Kangaroo Traffic Court
Spring 1996

If you’ve ever gotten a parking ticket in the Big Apple, you can sympathize with Herbert Walker. Between 1991 and 1993 he received four tickets; when he didn’t pay, police impounded his Oldsmobile sedan. Walker, a pilot and retired air force officer, took the city to court. In the process he may succeed in restoring some fairness to the city’s Parking Violations Bureau.

After the city impounded his car, Walker went before a PVB hearing officer. He told the officer that three of his citations were “phantom tickets,” issued while he and his car were in New Jersey. He even offered flight logs that showed he was flying on the days in question. The city presented no evidence against him beyond the four tickets—but he still lost.

To attorney Michael S. Gruen, the situation sounded all too familiar. In 1977 Gruen had gotten a ticket he didn’t feel he deserved, but the PVB made him pay the fine anyway. Gruen took the city to court and convinced a judge that the city wasn’t giving him the presumption of innocence. That ruling meant that the city could no longer convict somebody based on a parking ticket alone if the defendant raised a “substantial defense.” To win a conviction in such a case, the city would have to present enough evidence to meet its burden of proof. But two decades later, the PVB was still convicting motorists on the basis of no more than a ticket.

So Gruen took Walker’s case. Soon the city fired the traffic enforcement officer who had issued three of Walker’s tickets. It turned out the officer was writing phantom tickets. The city also reimbursed Walker for the cost of his bogus tickets and the impounding of his car. Walker and Gruen are fighting on, however, determined to change the way the city does business.

Trivial? Gruen sees a larger principle at stake. The PVB is where New Yorkers are most likely to encounter the legal system: in 1993 the city held 563,000 hearings over alleged parking violations. As Gruen argues, “The sheer volume of PVB adjudications makes it particularly important that the PVB comply with basic due process standards in order to sustain public faith in the justice system.”
 

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