Sign Installer Cited for Violating Rule on the Sign He Was Installing

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“I didn’t know what to say,” said Dan Greding about his reaction to getting a ticket for being parked longer than 75 minutes, which according to the signs he was installing at the time was the maximum time limit for that block. “I was dumbfounded.”

Had he not been dumbfounded, several short words and/or expressive gestures would probably have come to mind.

Greding said he had been hired to do all this sort of work for a newly redone area of downtown Santa Barbara. (By “this sort of work,” I mean painting the stripes on the street, painting the curbs, and installing parking signs. I don’t know what that’s called, obviously. The only word that comes to mind is “signage,” but for some reason that word makes me want to punch someone.) Greding had finished all the painting and was installing signs when he looked up and noticed a parking-enforcement officer writing him a ticket.

After his dumbfoundedness passed, Greding objected, and what happened next was one of those little legal arguments that go on every day in the real world even if the people involved aren’t lawyers and don’t realize that’s what they’re doing. And like many of those (and of course like many of the arguments lawyers have), it was kind of ridiculous.

“I said, ‘But I’m putting these signs up,'” Greding told KEYT. “And [the officer] says, ‘Then you should know you can’t park here more than 75 minutes.’ I said, ‘Well, I haven’t put the sign up yet, so you can’t write me a ticket.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, but the signs down there say, “this block,” so you’re in violation.’ [And I said,] ‘I just put those up 20 minutes ago!'”

Now annotated with the specific legal arguments they may have been making, without knowing it:

Greding: “But I’m putting these signs up [and therefore (1) the law is not yet effective as to this block, or (2) I cannot yet have had adequate notice of said law, or possibly (3) as a sign installer, I am immune from any regulation on a sign I am installing].”

Officer: “Then you should know you can’t park here more than 75 minutes [because (1) ignorance of the law is no excuse, (2) the sign refutes your claim of inadequate notice, or possibly (3) there’s no such immunity, and in fact as a sign installer you are estopped from claiming ignorance of the law on the sign you are installing].”

Greding: “Well, I haven’t put the sign up yet, so you can’t write me a ticket. [In this case ignorance is an excuse, and you have no evidence I actually looked at this sign. Although that may be a reasonable assumption for a sign that has been posted, this one has not.]”

Officer: “But the signs down there say, ‘this block,’ so you’re in violation. [Even if I accepted your argument as to this sign, it wouldn’t matter because there are other signs on this block, and as you just admitted it is reasonable to assume you looked at those.]”

Greding: “[That was Underhill’s statement, not an “admission” by me, as its enclosure in brackets demonstrates. And in any event,] I just put those up 20 minutes ago! [Therefore, even if you were correct, I have not violated the 75-minute rule those signs articulate.]”

Officer: <writes ticket, walks away> [Tell it to the judge.]

Greding did tell it to the judge, or a hearing officer, anyway, and lost. He’s appealing.

So who’s right? I actually think both sides have a plausible argument, which I think comes down to the notice issue: Can you legally be punished for parking somewhere if there’s no sign? The officer might plausibly think the law is the law whether or not it’s posted, and Greding might plausibly think that at least in this case, it does have to be posted. Ideally, we would have a written rule to settle this dispute, and it turns out Santa Barbara does.

Under its Municipal Code, “[n]o provision … for which signs are required shall be enforced against an alleged violator unless appropriate signs are in place and sufficiently legible to be seen by an ordinarily observant person, giving notice of such provisions of the traffic laws.” Section 10.12.050. I think parking signs are “required” because of various other sections and (I would argue) also because of the constitutional “right to travel“—or not travel—anywhere you damn well please unless the government specifically precludes it and has a rational basis for doing so. And notice that under the ordinance it doesn’t matter whether the alleged violator actually knew—it’s an objective test. The sign’s gotta be “in place.”

So if I were Dan, I’d argue that “under section 10.12.050, the 75-minute rule can’t be enforced against me because appropriate signs were not yet in place. I know, because I was the one putting them up. Even counting the ones I just put up, I had 55 minutes left.”

I’d also argue (as me this time) that the sort of nonsensical debate above is often short-circuited, or should be, by common sense. Dan had the right argument to begin with, and the officer should have realized how absurd it was to give the sign-installer a ticket. The fact that he didn’t is good news for me (and maybe some other lawyers too), but it sure is a waste of everybody else’s time.