Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Spicer v. City of Camarillo (Cal. Ct. App. - May 31, 2011)

The California Vehicle Code permits persons with disabled placards or license plates to park an unlimited time in zones that are marked with a sign that says you can only park there for a limited time.  The theory being that disabled persons may need to park closer (and take more time) than regular drivers.  Makes a fair amount of sense.

So if disabled persons can park longer in places where there are signs limiting parking times, surely they can also park longer in places where there aren't signs, right?

Not according to the Court of Appeal.  Which holds that if you're a disabled person, and there's a sign that says you can't park there, you can.  But if there's not a sign that says you can't park there, you can't.

Truly Orwellian, eh?

Let me nontheless first defend the Court of Appeal.  That's indeed what the Vehicle Code appears to say.  Section 22511.5 of the Vehicle Code provides:  "A disabled person . . . displaying special license plates . . . or a distinguishing placard . . . is allowed to park for unlimited periods in any of the following zones: . . . (B) In any parking zone that is restricted as to the length of time parking is permitted as indicated by a sign erected pursuant to a local ordinance."  So, pursuant to the statute, that's the only place where they're textually permitted to park forever.  By contrast, if there's not a sign, there's not an exception.  So where, as here, there's not a sign that limits parking, but instead a municipal statute that says you can't park for more than 72 hours in the same place (anywhere), the exception doesn't apply.  Statute's clear.  End of story. 

Except it's not, really.  Spicer says that if that's indeed what the statute provides, it's unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause.  Because such a statute would be remarkably silly.  But the Court of Appeal responds that such an interpretation doesn't violate the Equal Protection Clause because it would treat both disabled and nondisabled persons similarly.  Neither can park for more than 72 hours.  Treating people the same can't violate the Equal Protection Clause, the Court of Appeal holds.

Which facially seems right.  Except it's totally not.

The correct way to analyze this argument is not with respect to an assertion that disabled and non-disabled people are treated differently, but rather that places with signs are irrationally treated differently than places without signs.  That's the rational basis test under the Equal Protection Clause.  If a statute differentiates on this basis irrationally, it violates the Constitution.  Which this one arguably does.  It makes no sense at all -- even under the lenient rational basis test -- for a statute to say that a disabled person can park longer in a more time-sensitive area (places with signs) but has to leave faster from places in which longer parking is more acceptable (places without signs).  There's no tolerable argument for that.  It makes no sense.  The statute fails the rational basis test.  A test that the Court of Appeal doesn't apply, and that seems to me the correct one (as well as the one that plaintifff undoubtedly is articulating when he says that the statute doesn't make any sense if interpreted in the way advanced by the City).

Now, I think there's at least a possible defense of the statute, but it's not the one the Court of Appeal adopts (nor, I suspect, one the City advanced).  The Vehicle Code provides an exemption when (1) signs exist, that (2) are erected pursuant to a local ordinace.  Here, Camarillo has a municipal ordinance that limits parking -- everywhere -- to 72 hours.  But so does Section 22651(k) of the Vehicle Code itself.  Given these facts, the best defense of the Court of Appeal's interpretation of the statute might be to say that the Vehicle Code deliberately creates an exemption for disabled persons to municipal ordinances that limit parking (and have signs), but doesn't create an exemption for disabled persons to state law (including the 72-hour rule) that do the same thing.  That'd make (at least some) sense.  Surely enough to satisfy the lazy rational basis test.

Now, I won't talk at length about whether this is the correct interpretation of the statute.  That's an issue of statutory interpretation, and it's not an easy one.  But even if the Court of Appeal gets the statute right, I do not think it's right about the constitutional argument, which has a lot more depth than this six-page opinion addresses.

Which is not surprising.  This stuff is complicated.

But for now, at least, realize that it's after 1984.  So if there's a sign that says you can't park, go ahead and park.  But if there's no sign that says you can't park, watch out.  You can't park there.

Makes sense to me.