Saturday, October 17, 2009

Hidden messages are found in NYC parking signs

by Yosef Aaronsohn

An administrative law judge found last month in a ruling on September 11, 2009 that there is a hidden message in one of the parking signs posted on many of the New York City streets. Even more curious is that all drivers are supposed to know what that message means. The mysterious sign in question has a blue background with white lettering that states: "NYC Parking Cards Available". There is a picture of three choices of parking cards to choose from. At the bottom of the sign it says: "For information visit or call 311".

So, what is the hidden message in that sign?

I had no idea what the message was when I parked by it. I've shown the picture of the sign to several people since and no one fully got what the sign was about.

People who are familiar with NYC parking believed that the sign means that you need to pay something if you want to park there. People who are unfamiliar with parking in NYC only read that some kind of a parking card is available and you can visit a website or call a number if you want more information about acquiring it. None of those questioned had ever heard of a parking card. Maybe part of what the city is trying to do by posting it is to inform people that these cards are available.

The hidden message according to the young administrative law judge that heard my case is that you need to pay at a muni-meter for the right to park in the area of that sign.

He stated in his decision:

"Claim signs were not clear as the sign in front of Respondent's vehicle stated NYC parking card available, however further down the block there was a clearer sign stating pay at muni meter with arrow showing such and photo displayed as well is not a valid defense that sign was not clear, since as long as there is 1 legible sign on the block that is sufficient restriction in effect on the entire block. Guilty."

I was expecting the judge to recognize that there was no mention of a muni-meter on the sign by my car and since there would be no way for me to know about a muni-meter he would reverse the decision and remove the $65 fine. What I didn't consider is that a ruling in my favor would be admitting that the city inadvertantly left out an important piece of information on one of their signs. This could turn out to be an expensive ruling for the city. It was easier to pass the responsibility on to someone else instead of jeopardizing his name being attached to such an unnecessary expense to the City of New York.

The sign further down the block did state clearly to Pay at Muni-Meter but that was not the sign closest to my car. The sign closest to my car had a sign indicating that you can park on the street for up to one hour from 9 AM to 7 PM except Sunday. Which I did. I parked between 4 PM to 5 PM on a monday.

The blue sign was found just below the one-hour parking sign. The city actually wants you to make the connection between the blue sign and the muni-meter supposedly in place to govern the block. These were the only two signs posted on that particular signpost.

I contested the $65 penalty for failing to display a proper muni-meter receipt on my dashboard. The judge applied a well known rule called the one-sign-in-a-block rule. Enough people have been found guilty based on this one-sign-in-a-block rule that it has become a commonly known rule among drivers. I think this rule was incorrectly applied to my situation.

The one-sign-in-a-block rule basically states that if there is an unreadable sign near where a car is to be parked (and obviously if there is no sign at all) then it is the driver's responsibility to check the entire block for a more readable sign before assuming that it is okay to park there. This makes sense for governing the roads. One sign is enough to rule the whole block and nobody has to go past the end of the block in order to figure out what the restrictions are for parking.

But after you see a readable sign on a block and it aparantly applies to the area where you are parking, it's not the responsibility of the driver to check for more restrictive or conflicting signs all the way up and down the block (or at least it shouldn't be). The one-sign-in-a-block rule is only if you are faced with an unreadable or missing sign. Then you need to look further. And as long as there is one authorized regulatory sign describing what the parking situation is, you cannot later claim to a judge that the signs were not clear.

In the case of the mysterious blue sign that mentions nothing about a muni-meter, directly under a sign saying when it is acceptable to park, there is no reason to check further. When I parked by this sign I was glad there was no cost for parking at this location but was bothered that I could only stay for one hour. I looked up and down the block and saw cars parked in every space. There were no parking meters at all on the block and there was no fire hydrant within 15 feet of my spot. When I checked for a hydrant I noticed that just ahead of my spot were two short poles protecting a large box. This looked like an electrical box or the kind of box that Cablevision uses so I didn't concern myself with it. I assumed the poles were there to protect the box from a veering car. As long as there was no meter by my spot and no fire hydrant close by I parked according to what the sign said. I parked for an hour.

The City is assuming that people understand the blue sign to mean "Pay at Muni-Meter" (that is the hidden message). The other two signs on the block say this explicitly. I happened to park right at the one sign that did not say "Pay at Muni-Meter". The city probably left it out because it was so close to a muni-meter that they didn't know how to point to it. Instead of leaving out the arrows they left out the whole phrase. Since I never had the occasion to use a muni-meter before I would not have known what it looked like. It could have been right next to my car and it would have gone unnoticed because there is no obvious marking on the side that faces the road to indicate that it is any different from other utility boxes often seen by the curb. You have to already be looking for a muni-meter before you find it. And there's no reason to look for it unless the sign governing the parking spot says to look for it.

This logic was missed by the young administrative law judge who heard my case. He stuck his hand out when I plead not guilty and said, "Do you have a receipt?"

I said, "No" and handed him a picture of the sign. "But the sign that I saw didn't say anything about a muni-meter. There was no way for me to know from this sign that I needed to pay money at a muni-meter."

He went ahead and typed up the rather unclear statement of his decision: "Claim signs were not clear..."

I have to wonder if the judges are instructed to write everything they want to say about the decision in one long run-on sentence. Or was it just the style of this judge. I was amazed at his use of the two fingered method of typing. I was very impressed with the speed of his two fingered typing. But unimpressed with his last sentence: Guilty. I was disappointed that he justified his decision of guilty with the one-sign-in-a-block rule. It seemed to make his day to be able to pull this rule out the hat and apply it to this case. Guilty.

As I got up to leave I asked him how I was supposed to know about the other signs. He said, "That would be a good thing to mention in an appeal."

I followed up with an appeal. The two or three minutes spent with this judge seemed long compared with the length of time the two judges must have spent on scribbling out the notice upholding the judges decision on appeal. The form letter sent back to me had a mark next to the line saying: Upon review of the entire record before us, we find no error of fact or law. The Judge's decision is upheld.

There was wavy line passed through the other choice which reads: Upon review of the entire record before us, we find error. The decision is reversed and the prior payment will be returned. I get the feeling that this line gets crossed out most of the time.

So now I have three judges that signed on board agreeing that the decision to charge me $65 was not in error.

The New York City government would like drivers to simply know that a muni-meter is in effect whenever they post the blue sign with the parking card information on it. They evidently don't care that it doesn't explicitly say that a fee is required. The most disturbing part of this is how submissive New Yorkers have become when they are presented with a half a story. They have become trained to accept an incomplete sign and take for granted what the city wants them to believe about it. Even when it makes no logical sense.

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