Motorists get creative when contesting tickets
Joe Sollitto, the clerk of courts at the Superior Court in Edgartown, said he voids one to two percent of parking tickets that are brought before him. Photo by Ralph Stewart
After 25 years on the job, Joe Sollitto said he is able to tell when people are trying to pull a fast one on him. Five mornings a week Mr. Sollitto, the clerk of courts at the Superior Court in Edgartown, listens to motorists plead their cases and explain why they shouldn't have to pay their parking ticket.
"They have their opinion, and I have mine," Mr. Sollitto said in a recent interview. "But my opinion, in this particular instance, is the one that rules."
Sitting in his quaint office on an upper floor of the courthouse, his customary bowtie signaling his cheery demeanor, Mr. Sollitto said he voids between one and two percent of all parking tickets that are brought before him. Police chiefs from the Island towns can also request that tickets be voided, due to officer errors.
Mr. Sollitto landed this unique position in 1981, when a new law dictated that individual towns would handle their own ticket hearings, rather than the district court.
The all-Island selectmen's association thought it would be easier if one person handled all the hearings, so each town elected Mr. Sollitto as the hearings officer. Later on, they hired the county parking clerk, Carol Grant, to collect the payments.
While Mr. Sollitto said he couldn't determine whether the majority of people who have come in to contest tickets over the years are Island natives or just here for a visit, he can place each of them in three specific categories.
There are the people who truly feel they were wronged - and they often were, Mr. Sollitto noted. Then there are the people who know they violated a parking law, but just want to "give it a shot" and see if they can avoid paying the fine. And finally, there are the people who simply don't think they should have to pay the violation at all.
"Out of all the hearings that I do, probably the most people get the most upset about parking tickets," Mr. Sollitto said. "They'd make a donation to the boys club for $50 instead of paying a parking ticket for $10."
Mr. Sollitto chuckled at the memory of one local woman who parked in front of the courthouse with half her car in an authorized space and half in a restricted space. With the light purple ticket in hand, the woman acknowledged to Mr. Sollitto that she was parked half legally and half illegally, and therefore insisted that she pay only half the fine - $7.50 of the $15 ticket.
"It's like being pregnant," he recalled telling the woman. "You either are or you aren't, there's no little bit." He said the woman gave him a hug and a kiss, thought it was a very acceptable explanation, paid the ticket, and left.
One couple told him a story of returning to their car after a meal at Giordano's in Oak Bluffs, only to be greeted by a parking ticket tucked beneath their windshield wiper. The woman told her husband the pavement under the car was painted with the words CARS ONLY. "Of course when he backed the car up she had missed the first word, which was 'police' cars only," Mr. Sollitto said, adding that he takes pity on stories like that.
But other times people are simply lying: and sometimes he can prove it.
One summer, a gentleman came in contesting a ticket he received for parking on State Beach, a rare but serious infraction. Mr. Sollitto said the man swore up and down that his Chevy Suburban had two wheels on the pavement - the regulation regarding this particular law - and that he should not have to pay the ticket.
Mr. Sollitto recognized the license plate number on the ticket, and showed the motorist a digital picture of his car taken by the ticketing officer. Instead of parking parallel to the beach as the signs dictate, Mr. Sollitto said the bulky SUV was positioned perpendicular to the beach with all four tires on the sand.
"He looked at me, and he looked at the picture, he turned around and walked out," Mr. Sollitto said.
Photos are not only used by police to capture violators, but also by the ticketed drivers. Digital photos and even videos are brought in to prove their case. Sometimes they work, and sometimes they don't.
Mr. Sollitto examined a recent picture sent in by a gentleman who said the signage was "confusing" and therefore he should not have to pay the fine.
"This gentleman said, 'I parked in the loading zone because it was confusing,' and I said, 'if it was confusing, why would you park there to begin with?'"
While repeat offenders are rare, Edgartown does own a "boot" which they use sparingly, Mr. Sollitto said. Additionally, once someone has five or more unpaid parking tickets, a criminal complaint can be issued. The offender normally attends the hearing to settle the dispute, and it is "a good way of getting your money," Mr. Sollitto said. "Because, you have to pay the tickets."
And sometimes signage is simply interpreted differently. Mr. Sollitto explained that the signs dotting Main St. in Edgartown and Vineyard Haven state "one-hour parking," therefore vehicles must be moved from the street after that hour expires - and not just to another spot on the same street.
"Because everybody then, in all these stores, they'd form a conga line," Mr. Sollitto said. "So we all go out and move our cars one space at a time."
The rules for paying or contesting a parking ticket are printed clearly on the front of the violation. Offenders can either mail the fine to the parking clerk, or go in person to pay. If they choose to contest the ticket, hearings are held every weekday from 8:30 am until 10:30 am. They can also write to Mr. Sollitto with their claim.
A country way of doing things
"It's not a pen pal club. We can't be writing letters back and forth," Mr. Sollitto said, noting that the only time someone will receive a return letter is if he does not void the ticket.
"We're very country about what we do here," Mr. Sollitto said, his desk littered with handwritten correspondence from the parking clerk and Island police chiefs. "Everything between myself and the parking clerk is usually done by hand, because there's no other way of doing it."
Mr. Sollitto said in a typical day he addresses four or five people who feel their ticket should be disregarded. In the off-season, the number of people dwindles with the number of Island motorists.
"You have to have a good sense of humor to do this," Mr. Sollitto said with a grin. "I like people, but sometimes you see the worst of them, sometimes you see the best. I have a job to do and sometimes it's not a nice job."