You Be the Judge

Can a Missing Comma Really Get You Out of Paying a Parking Ticket?

Andrea Cammelleri's car was impounded for overtime parking. But would a tiny grammar technicality be enough to save her from paying?

november 2015 YBTJNoma Bar for Reader's Digest

Andrea Cammelleri woke up on February 13, 2014, made a cup of coffee, looked out the front window of her house in West Jefferson, Ohio, and panicked. Her 1993 Ford Ranger, which had been parked on the street the night before, was gone.

Cammelleri called 911. When she gave the dispatcher the year, make, and model, he told her that her car had not been stolen.

“It was impounded for overtime parking,” he said.

Cammelleri, then 45, was confused. There weren’t any No Parking signs posted along the curb. Her truck was licensed and drivable. Plus, she’d been parking it on the street nearly every day and night since she’d moved into her home two and a half years earlier.

Later, when a police officer dropped off the actual ticket, she found she’d been fined $120 for violating a West Jefferson village parking ordinance. She looked it up online. It stated that it was illegal to park “any motor vehicle camper, trailer, farm implement and/or non-motorized vehicle” on a street for more than 24 hours. Cammelleri had left her pickup truck parked on the street for longer than was allowed, but she didn’t believe that the ordinance, as written, applied to her vehicle. “My truck wasn’t a ‘motor vehicle camper,’” she says.

She went to the municipal office to point out the grammatical error, expecting the mayor to “rip up the ticket and call it a done deal.”

She went to the municipal office to point out the grammatical error, expecting the mayor to “rip up the ticket and call it a done deal.” That didn’t happen, so she officially contested the citation.

At the bench trial on March 18, Cammelleri discovered that 27 other people in her subdivision had had their cars towed that same day, though most had paid the fine. Undeterred, she made her case. The village countered that the ordinance did apply, despite the inadvertent omission of the comma between the phrase motor vehicle and the word camper. The court agreed, stating that “anybody reading [the ordinance] would understand that it is just missing a comma.” The court ruled that Cammelleri was guilty and had to pay the fine, the $166 in towing fees, and court costs.

Cammelleri appealed to the Twelfth Appellate District of Ohio.

“For as long as that subdivision existed, people had parked on the road,” says Cammelleri’s attorney, Brian Harter. “Then, on this one day, they just tow everybody? That makes little sense.”

 

The Verdict

Cammelleri and her attorney claimed in briefs that the lower court erred in ruling that she was guilty of overtime parking as outlined in the ordinance and also “in failing to find any ambiguity” in the ordinance as it was written. In an opinion published on June 22, 2015, the three appellate judges unanimously sided with Cammelleri and vacated her conviction, which the Washington Post called “a victory for punctuation.” “According to grammar rules, items in a series are separated by commas,” Judge Robert Hendrickson wrote. He concluded that “reading ‘motor vehicle camper’ as one item does not produce an absurd result. If the village desires a different reading, it should insert a comma between the phrase ‘motor vehicle’ and ‘camper.’?” In the end, the village took his advice.

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