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My near-miss parking ticket in downtown Tacoma: Is a ticket possible as soon as you put the car in park?

Post by Kathleen Cooper / The News Tribune on Feb. 1, 2011 at 11:17 am with 27 Comments »
February 3, 2011 12:00 pm

I almost got a parking ticket yesterday in downtown Tacoma while sitting in my running car for five minutes while I sent an e-mail.

First, let me state unequivocally: I violated the law. My running car was in park along the curb at South 9th Street and Pacific Avenue, which is in the paid parking zone. I had an expired parking sticker from earlier in the afternoon on my window, and I did not even think to get out and pay 25 cents for a new one because I planned to sit there for less than five minutes while I e-mailed a news story to my editor.

And, ultimately, I did not get a ticket, but the parking attendant had written one before agreeing to void it. It’s that exchange I wanted to write about, because I think it shows a little less flexibility and discretion than I had thought was the norm.

Here’s what happened. Bear with me, because I want to make sure you all have the context. (My mother calls this “building the roadbed.”)

Around 3 p.m. yesterday, I stopped in at The Swiss to interview the owner there about another story I’m working on. Then I planned to head over to the convention center to write about the businesses at GoLocal‘s Tacoma Shift Happens event.

It’s possible to park near the Swiss and not pay, but I pulled in to the first spot I saw, popped a quarter into the machine, affixed my ticket and went about my work. About 15 minutes later I left, parked farther north on Market Street where it’s unpaid, 90-minute parking, and walked to the convention center. By this time, I had forgotten about the sticker, which expired around 3:30 p.m.

I left the convention center around 4:15 p.m. and swung over to a new restaurant on Tacoma Avenue and South 9th11th Street I hadn’t visited yet. I needed some iced tea and planned to write and e-mail my story from there. It’s also on the way to my son’s daycare, which is where I was headed as soon as I filed my story. But the restaurant didn’t have wi-fi, so I wrote my story while I had my drink, then headed down 9th Street toward the downtown Starbucks.

My initial plan was to park, buy another 25-cent ticket, run in to Starbucks and use their wi-fi. Another disclosure: I didn’t plan to buy anything at Starbucks. I drink a lot of coffee, and I buy at least one latte each day from Starbucks all over Tacoma but I never use the wi-fi. So I figured, this one time, it was OK for me to jump online without buying anything.

As I approached the Starbucks, I saw a curbside spot open right next to the building and thought, Great! I can just slam it in park, jump online, e-mail my story on Shift Happens then head to pick up my son.

While I was waiting for my computer to connect, I saw out my passenger window that a parking attendant was on the sidewalk. I could see that he or she was looking down the block, so I thought nothing of it. A few minutes passed, while I double-checked a fact in my story then e-mailed it to my editor. I closed my laptop just as I noticed the attendant at the front driver’s side of my car, writing a ticket.

I rolled down my window and said with surprise, “Are you ticketing me?”

She said yes, because my window sticker had “long expired.”

I agreed that it had, and I said I was sorry about that, but that it was from earlier in the day. I also said I was sitting there only for long enough to send an e-mail and I planned to leave at that moment. As evidence of that, I pointed out that my car was running and that I had moved my laptop to the passenger seat.

She said that the rule was that an expired sticker required her to write a ticket.

I said again that I understood that, but what I was asking for was some discretion. I said, “I’ve been sitting in my car. I saw you a few minutes ago and didn’t know that you were planning to ticket me. Couldn’t you have asked me what I was doing?” I would have popped out and bought another 25 cents worth of time if she had done that — I would have found that irritating, but I would have complied.

She then said she would find a way to void the ticket, but that it was my responsibility to make sure I had taken care of the parking. As I was about to agree, and thank her, she said:

“You can’t just homestead here. It’s your responsibility.”

I found that a little off-putting. As I drove away, I wrestled with whether to write about this, because I don’t think parking attendants’ jobs are easy. They’re out in the weather and hear excuses from people all day long. I’m sure some people are rude and disrespectful. But here’s the thing: I’m not rude nor disrespectful. And I’ve written a few stories already about the downtown parking system, so I know that one of the guiding principles is to “create a positive customer experience.”

And even though this wasn’t my intent, what if I had been checking e-mail before I got out to pay for parking? Are we really subject to a ticket the moment we put the car in park?

I called David Carr, the parking manager for the city, to get his take on my experience. I’ll let you know what he says.

Meanwhile, what do you think? Should I have gotten the ticket anyway? I know that many of you don’t like paid parking generally, but have you had any specific experiences, good or bad, that you would share? Please post a thoughtful comment below.

UPDATE, 1:04 p.m.: City spokesman Rob McNair-Huff tells me that parking staff has been instructed on “how to interpret and handle some of those discretionary situations.”

“To defend the attendant(s), they don’t know if (drivers have) been sitting there or parking for five minutes or 30 minutes,” he said. “I’m a little surprised there wasn’t a conversation. They’re instructed to use some discretion.”

UPDATE, 1:45 p.m.: David Carr just called. He said he had spoken to the parking officer involved and had a good conversation, and that this would be a learning tool.

He said parking staff members absolutely do have discretion. Here’s how he explained it:

“The training they have is, if they have the opportunity to interact with someone and make a positive interaction, do so. If you don’t have the comfort, make an observation and go on on your route and come back. Because if I observe you at 4:15 and make eye contact, and I come back at 4:30 and you’re still there, then the discussion is different.”

This makes sense to me. He also offered a possible explanation for the parking officer’s approach to me. Seeing that I had a sticker on my window, even though it was expired, shows I understood the system. Maybe I left it there intentionally to try to game it. (I didn’t, but I understand what he’s saying.)

As for why she didn’t try to talk to me at all, he said that was the missed opportunity.

“I’ve been saying this all along. But when (the officers are) out there, there’s some times where it’s challenging to write citations all day,” he said. “They’re being told by me to interact when they have the opportunity. If I was doing that all that time there might be times I wouldn’t want to.”

That I also understand.

Carr said he instructs his staff to minimize enforcement and emphasizes interaction.

“What I’m trying to do is shift away from an old culture to a new culture,” he said. Making eye contact is important. “I don’t want my staff to be the person to write a ticket to a dead guy.”

Leave a comment Comments → 27
  1. swade2569 says:

    I think you should have gotten the ticket anyway. It’s .25 to be legit. I don’t see much point in giving the parking attendant any flexibility in the rules because that can lend itself to favoritism, disproportionally-applied leniency, or worse.

    I also think the homesteading comment by the parking attendant was completely unnecessary.

  2. Parking spaces are extreeeeemly rare in Tacoma and you should not use them for things like texting and e-mailing. Much better you do that while driving.

  3. I feel a lot of the people that are supposed to be serving the Public are very good at putting the public down.Since you are on their turf,be prepared to take their bad behavior!I think if you were just sitting in your auto,gathering up your supplies to go into a business,there would be someone there to write you a ticket for illegal parking.I will personally find a reason for not going to downtown Tacoma for any reason!

  4. omega629 says:

    So how much time do you get to get out and pay the .25 cents?? What if it took 3 min to get out, walk to the kiosk, pay and then get back to the car??? Is that too long?? There should be a 5-10 min grace period.

  5. Do i think you deserved the ticket? Perhaps, but i do agree with the point of ‘what if i had been preparing to get out ot pay for parking?’ A good question would be, however, why the heck was the parking sticker still on your window? Wouldn’t that sticker impeed your vision while you are driving?

    Finally, i would like to point out that while the Mayor is attempting to keep people in Tacoma, perhaps she should have a 10-15 minute parking lot that can be used for those of us that have to circle the blocks while we wait for our children/relatives to get off the city bus. This could also be wi-fi capable for situations such as yours.

  6. tomas472 says:


    My first thought was that you should not have been ticketed as the “long expired ticket” from elsewhere was certainly NOT proof that you had been homesteading in that parking spot.

    When I thought of the parking attendant using an old parking sticker that was not even from your current location as “proof” that you were breaking the law and subject to a ticket, my next thought was that those tickets need to be identifiable as to point of issue to prevent that sort of egregious error.

    Then I thought a bit further and decided that maybe, just maybe, you should have received a ticket…

    Let me put it this way: I’m handicapped, and because of my limited mobility I really do need to park close to where I’m going in a spot that is wide enough for me to swing my door WIDE.

    Because of this, I’m perhaps a bit more sensitive to folks parking contrary to rules or laws.

    You would not believe how many times some perfectly healthy, spry young person mouths something like “I was only going to be five minutes!” as they finally come back and move their unlawfully parked vehicle out of the handicapped only parking spot so I can park (or worse, out of the “hatched area” next to my vehicle, preventing me from getting into my parked car…).

    So, I’m afraid I can’t buy the “I was only going to be five minutes!” argument that should allow one not to be ticketed. Do you KNOW that no one else wanted or needed to park in the space you were taking up without paying, but couldn’t?

    I hear the same thing, BTW, at the apartment complex I live in – I pay monthly rental on a marked, reserved parking spot right in front of my apartment so that I am assured a parking spot close by. All too often when I return home, there will be a car parked in that spot, and no other parking available. A car they swear was only going to be there five minutes.

    So, from your story: The parking stickers need to be identifiable as to issue location, and if you take up a space you need to follow the rules – even if it is “only five minutes.”

    Take the ticket and chalk it up as a learning experience. :o)


  7. Kathleen Cooper says:

    Hi TheCoze, the sticker was on my passenger window… it’s about 3″ square and I placed it a little below center, so I could still see. But you’re right… I should have removed it before driving.

  8. Kathleen Cooper says:

    Hi Tom and Swade, I take both of your points. Tom, particularly, I take your point about handicapped spaces. When I was a teenager I parked in a handicap spot that wasn’t very well-painted, and I went inside a drug store only to be strongly reprimanded later by a person who needed that spot. I honestly didn’t know it was a designated spot, but I was embarrassed just the same. It made quite an impression.

    Thanks, too, to all of you for such thoughtful comments so far.

  9. Olympia gives you 15 minutes free on their meters. Hit the button once and boom, good to go for those quick stops.

    Tacoma should follow that example.

  10. East_Tacoma says:

    You knew the rules ahead of time and you chose to break them, therefore I pronounce you “Guilty”!

    And “Parking Attendant”? You definitely should be given a citation for that off-put comment.

    Imagine a driver purposely abusing the system by parking there for more than a few minutes. He/she waits until they see the “parking enforcement officer” come walking up the block, then starts their car and says ”
    I was sitting here only long enough to send an e-mail and I am planning to leave at this moment.” There should be no discretion.

    A judge once told me “Sir, ignorance of the law is not a valid defense.”

  11. figures says:

    Sorry, you lost me when you said “I saw out my passenger window that a parking attendant was on the sidewalk.” At that point you should have immediately gotten out of the car or driven away. You must at least make an attempt within a couple of minutes to get out of the car. So, you should have gotten a ticket.

  12. PumainTacoma says:

    “You can’t just homestead here. It’s your responsibility.”

    Kind of how I feel about deadbeats not paying their fairshare of taxes in the deferred condos downtown. If you want to live in downtown Tacoma pay for the MAYORS front porch.

  13. I think that, if you approach this statistically, cars who have someone sitting in the driver’s seat ought not to receive a ticket. The reasoning is thus: most people park their cars to get out to get something. Or maybe pull over to take a call. Some might sit (and God forbid) send an email. Sure, some people will sit there for 30 minutes and eat lunch, but I am willing to bet not many. Besides, there are people who will cheat at anything. I think it is also perfectly defensible to not want to get out and walk a half block to get your sticker for a 5 minute stop. Perhaps the parking officers should be instructed to tell people who are sitting there to get a sticker or “Move it along, please.”

    I haven’t heard of this yet, but I am waiting to hear about someone getting a ticket while they are halfway up the block waiting for the machine to clear their debit card and issue a sticker.

  14. slvr_ro says:

    Seems to me you were just practicing “Shift Happens” and patronizing Tacoma local businesses. I guess you forgot the parking fee is one of those.

    No, you shouldn’t have gotten a ticket. Yes, it would ahve been clearer if you had plunked a quarter in teh machine. Next time waste some gas and cause some pollution by driving up hill to find a free space to pullover for a minute.

    This city is really schizophrenic about what it wants to be when it grows up.

  15. Kathleen Cooper says:

    Hi everyone, I just wanted to point out that I’ve updated the post with comments from the city parking manager, David Carr. Thanks again for your thoughtful remarks (and sense of humor, slvr_ro and TheSlag).

  16. garysboat says:

    I woulden’t go downtown Tacomal I have no reason. Im sure not ‘artsie’. Any place Ive gone has moved. So Tacoma, keep those parking meters polished and brite. You’ll never get a dime out of me. Not now for sure !!

  17. East_Tacoma says:

    Here is the backstory on my opinion:

    I’m in Seattle one day and I decide to have lunch in the International District. Parking can be very difficult in that area but I was lucky that day to find someone pulling out as I was coming down the street. After parking my car I walked over to the pay kiosk, inserted my credit card in to the machine, chose the appropriate amount of time and completed my transaction. Total amount paid, $4. I grabbed the receipt and walked back to my car and placed it on top of the driver’s side dashboard in plain view.

    After having lunch I walk back to my car and to my amazement what do I find? A parking citation for $24 neatly tucked under my driver’s side windshield wiper. Emotions from bewilderment to anger ran through my body. “How could this be?” I asked. “I had ample time left to park.”

    Well upon reading the instructions on the back of the receipt it clearly states – “Peel back off of sticker and affix it to the driver’s side window.” The sticker was on the dashboard, in plain view, not more than 12 inches from the side window. I could see the sticker when I retrieved the citation and I’m sure the enforcement officer could too, but no discretion given.

    So after finding a legal parking spot, paying the required parking fee, and having ample time left to park I was still cited and fined, ultimately for not reading and following the instructions. The legal argument is “Improperly displayed sticker”. In my defense I thought it was a receipt and not a sticker. But in the eyes of the City of Seattle I was a law breaker. Bam! Guilty, you owe us $24. Pay up!

    I could have used some discretion but instead I got a $24 lesson on reading and following the rules.

  18. Kathleen Cooper says:

    East_Tacoma, that is really frustrating. I’m sorry that happened. I agree that you could have used some discretion. Seems like we all need a little room to make mistakes now and then, especially for something like parking.

  19. Lorakittle says:

    Has anyone seen Parking Wars? This is a problem in every single city that has paid parking. Everyone has a good reason why he or she should not be subject to the laws. I don’t know what everyone else thinks, but if you want to go to a business or conduct business at the city county building you have to pay to park. Period. The only place you shouldn’t have to park would be the library. I just take the bus whenever I have to go downtown. It’s easy and I don’t have to worry about parking, not following the rules of parking, or someone hitting my car. As for Kathleen, I see your point and I also see the parking enforcement officers point. It would be my guess that you are reimbursed for parking costs because it’s an expense incurred by doing your job. It’s also much easier less stress etc. to just pay. I really don’t see what all the fuss is about.

  20. dirtydan54 says:

    I have a problem with having to pat to park on property I and other people own. No city or other muncipality owns squat, let alone the public streets and highways.

    What doesn’t make sense to me is why should I or others have to pay anything at all to any entity that has no ownership, right or claim to what we own? It just isn’t right.

  21. Reply to Tom. I feel your angst. Having had a disabled husband, mother and father, and now me, I often find no handicapped accessible parking available. In the downtown area there are not enough spaces and there are very few on “pill hill”, where there should be an abundance.
    While we are airing our grievances about discrimination of handicapped persons, how about going into the public rest room to find a teen-age girl trying on clothes in the handicapped stall? Or with three other stalls empty, watching the perfectly able young woman bolt for the handicapped stall instead?
    It may come as a surpirse but some of us require those “bars” to get off the toilet. Is that too graphic for you to understand?
    And a death sentence should be mandatory for any architect who designs a public rest room without leaving space to navigate an electric scooter or wheelchair.

  22. crocodopolis says:

    I haven’t paid for a parking ticket in decades.
    If I have to pay to park, I go somewhere else.
    Nothing in downtown Tacoma I can’t find somewhere else with free parking.

    Like the man above said: one of these days Tacoma will figure out what it wants to be when it grows up.

  23. I read, somewhere, olemag, that a handicapped stall in a restroom isn’t treated the same as handicapped parking, from the standpoint that there is no law that says that a non-handicapped person cannot use a handicapped stall. The purpose of the handicapped stall is to provide the space and equipment necessary for handicapped people, not, necessarily, to reserve that stall for only handicapped people.

    That being said, I feel that the handicapped stall should only be used as a last resort by those who don’t require that facility.

  24. WCrain10 says:

    I wonder if this was the same Parking Enforcement person that was going to ticket school buses parked in front of the Pantages Theatre to pick up children that had been to a play?

  25. Kathleen Cooper says:

    WCrain10, would you e-mail me with more details about the Pantages if you’re not comfortable posting here? I’m at

  26. nospokenword says:

    Should you have received a ticket for idling at the curb to a few minutes? Absolutely not. Public servants should use some common sense discretion and apply basic customer service principles to their work. If there had been a safety issue (and I think parking in a handicapped accessible stall is a safety issue), then that would be one thing, but no one’s life was in danger because you pulled up to the curb. And since you were sitting in your car, it was poor judgment for the enforcement staff to start writing a ticket without asking for clarification on what you were doing. Finally, trying to get that last word by saying, “You can’t homestead here. It’s your responsibility,” shows very poor judgment on the public servant’s part. They are not there to lecture or one up the public they serve. I acknowledge that it’s probably a difficult and thankless job, but it’s the job for which they signed up, and they need to carry it out appropriately. I really hope that the City corrects this officer and sets a better tone in general.

  27. boonrob says:

    This was a waste of space in the paper edition. I look forward to stories of reporters that don’t get a good table at a restaurant. As a paper that seems to strive for the city to manage its expenses—you should have taken the ticket–and paid it.

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