Parking tickets can make you feel powerless. They’re the adult equivalent of a trip to the principal’s office, and they’re not cheap. I know: Last year, I was ticketed three times for parking in front of my own house. Okay, so the sign said “one-hour parking,” but it was on a residential street where I’d never seen anyone get ticketed, my neighbors parked their cars there for days at a time, and I don’t like following rules that don’t make sense. So when I was inevitably ticketed, I fought back in traffic court. I won my case, and you can win yours, too.
Let’s start with the ticket: If you don’t want to pay it, you have to send it back with a written explanation and a request for a hearing. Then you wait for a terrifying-looking summons to arrive. It’ll say something like “STATE OF OREGON VS. BURBANK, MEGAN,” and make you feel like an enemy of the state. But you aren’t. You’re refusing to pay your ticket the responsible way. So marshal your inner Elle Woods/Leslie Knope/Sam Seaborn, take note of your court date, and show up early. You won’t be alone. Parking tickets are handled in batches, so you’ll be surrounded by fellow violators and the officers who ticketed all of you. That’s right! Traffic court is the closest most of us will come to being on an awkward reunion episode of a reality TV show.
Before the judge enters, you’ll have a chance to share your story with the ticketing officer. This sounds terrible. Do it anyway. Introduce yourself, and explain calmly and politely why you don’t think you should have to pay your ticket. Here are some good reasons: inclement weather, unclear signage, a medical emergency, ditching your car after a night of drinking, and financial hardship. Here are some bad ones: anything that’s a straight-up lie. Trust me, you will feel uncomfortable talking to cops and a judge in a courtroom, and unless you are a seasoned con artist, the truth is easier to remember. In all likelihood, your ticketing officer will at least reduce your fine. Then the judge comes in, and one by one, the offenders and officers go before the judge, who listens to each case and approves each resolution.
My ticketing officer remembered me, because I’d yelled at him. After getting my third parking ticket, I spotted a traffic cop in my neighborhood and flagged him down. I asked why there was a one-hour parking sign across the street from my house in a residential neighborhood, and if he knew how I could get it removed. He told me to call the city, but indicated that he doubted my abilities. “I’m going to get it taken down,” I shouted back as I walked away. I don’t know what compelled me to make such an absurd, cocky declaration, but I wasn’t wrong about my impending success—or the sign, which a city worker told me over the phone had been installed for no reason she could find, even after going through city records. The sign was removed a few weeks later.
I now sat face-to-face with my nemesis, and he remembered me. I had a speech prepared, but I didn’t need to use it. The officer recalled my foolish promise and was pleasantly surprised to discover that I’d kept it. He said that civic engagement should be rewarded, and dismissed my fines.
“She went to civics school and got a sign changed,” he said into the record when our time before the judge arrived. It was the jauntiest resolution announced that day. The judge said my refund would arrive by Christmas. It was July. A fellow ticket-disputer I’d been chatting with earlier grinned at me as I left the courtroom. “Sometimes you get lucky,” said another.
In a hard summer riddled by political anxiety and concerns about a sick family member, it turned out fighting my parking tickets was one of the few things I could control. But you can’t take control if you don’t show up. And that day in traffic court, I realized something: I was one of the only offenders to have my tickets dismissed outright, but almost everyone had their fines reduced. Not because their stories were amazing—many weren’t—but because they were there. Sometimes, that’s all civic engagement really means. The people who make the trip are the only ones who get a second chance and an opportunity to be heard. You deserve to be among them.