Parking case rides a runaway legal train

Stanford Weinstein, a 74-year-old retired trial attorney, stands next to his vehicle where in early 2018 he received a $250 ticket for a parking violation. After an 18-month legal fight, the ticket has been refunded and his court costs have been paid. Gabriela Campos/The New Mexican

Not many people have the will and legal skill to fight City Hall for 18 months over a parking ticket.

But Stanford Weinstein, a retired 74-year-old trial attorney, is no ordinary litigant. His competitive instincts flared after he received a $250 ticket claiming he had parked illegally by failing to display his handicap placard.

Weinstein said he was innocent and filed a protest. Then he accused city bureaucracy of being tone-deaf, sustaining the ticket even though it had no evidence against him.

And so it was that he came out of retirement and sued the city to void the ticket.

The case began on a winter afternoon in 2018. Weinstein, driving his wife’s Audi, found a parking space on Camino de la Familia. It was a regular spot, not one designated for drivers with a disability.

But there was a complicating factor. His wife is disabled. He said her handicap placard rested along the dashboard, unbeknownst to him.

Weinstein returned to the car to find the $250 ticket. A parking officer named Garcia wrote “placard hidden” and listed this as a violation of the law on handicapped parking.

Weinstein decided to contest the ticket. Under the rules, he first had to file written notice with the city Parking Violations Bureau.

“I am not handicapped, do not use a disabled parking permit and was not parked in a handicap space,” he wrote.

Weinstein admitted to violating a lesser parking ordinance for which he was not ticketed.

“I am a new resident of Santa Fe. Since I was unfamiliar with the area, I looked for but found no parking meters. I did not pay to park.”

Only afterward did he see a sign on a wall directing motorists to a machine down the block where they should pay for parking and then place the receipt inside the windshield.

By his account, Weinstein deserved a $35 ticket for overtime parking but not the $250 ticket.

He assembled his evidence and repeated his story during an administrative hearing. The city parking officer did not attend. Weinstein believed he should have won on that fact alone, as he had no opportunity to confront his accuser.

His meeting with the hearing officer was perfunctory, lasting no more than five minutes.

Weinstein received a decision soon after. The city rejected his challenge of the $250 ticket.

“It was a go-fly-a-kite response,” he said.

The decision was so poorly written it’s impossible to follow. The unidentified hearing officer stated: “The citizen admits that he was unfamiliar with the parking area and failed to see the parking display signage. Nonetheless if new to an area he failed to observe sufficiently to determine the nature of parking as no parking signage. Hence he failed.”

No mention was made of the parking officer’s allegation that Weinstein had violated the law on disabled parking, which was the reason for so hefty a fine in the first place.

Most people challenging a parking ticket would have had to concede defeat at this stage. That’s because appeals of a hearing officer’s decision aren’t heard in Municipal Court, where informality is welcome.

These appeals go to state District Court. It has a precise and detailed format on how a lawsuit must be filed.

Weinstein, who made his mark litigating telecommunications cases in Washington, knew how to navigate waters that would have been too choppy for a layman.

Assistant City Attorney Michael Prinz took over the case for the government. His first move was to oppose Weinstein’s motion for a default judgment.

By then, 11 months had passed since the parking officer ticketed Weinstein. The case was far from over.

District Judge Matthew Wilson scheduled a trial. Then he reversed field by ruling for Weinstein on the merits and ordering the city to refund the $250 fine.

“Based on the whole record on appeal, the decision of the City is not supported by substantial evidence,” the judge wrote.

His ruling didn’t end the case, though.

Weinstein asked the city to pay his court costs of $192. Filing the appeal had cost him $132. He also spent $60 for a telephonic court hearing while he and his wife were at their second home in Florida. She was being treated for lymphoma, so he could not attend the Santa Fe hearing in person.

“As you know,” Weinstein wrote to Prinz, “the prevailing party is entitled to court costs whether or not the Court specifically address them in its order. It should be noted that I am making no claim for attorney’s fees.”

Weinstein said he had worked 40 to 50 hours on his case, researching the law and filing his pleadings.

Prinz resisted him. He said the city Parking Division required a court order for Weinstein to recover his costs. Prinz also said Weinstein’s itemized bill was filed after a deadline.

Weinstein fired back, saying deadlines weren’t a priority when Prinz waited 27 days to reply to his first letter seeking reimbursement.

Then it got uglier. Weinstein told Prinz his next filing would be one of a personal nature. He planned to excoriate Prinz for pushing a case the city could not win.

Prinz told me he would comment Thursday, but later said he would not be able to do so until later.

As it turned out, the city finally surrendered and reimbursed Weinstein for court costs.

He blames a stubborn city bureaucracy for refusing to acknowledge a mistake, wasting his time and that of a state District Court judge.

Of course, Weinstein could have relented. He could have accepted the $250 ticket, especially because the obscured handicap placard might have triggered the parking officer’s suspicions.

At last it’s over. Forget about getting a day in court.

The way this case was going, the litigants might have needed a decade.

Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at msimonich@sfnewmexican.com or 505-986-3080.