I had the pleasure to stand before a judge today. Let me give you the low-down.
A friend of mine is a business owner in Dewey Beach, Delaware. He doesn’t speak the best English (he has a good grasp of the language, but has a hard time speaking the words quickly, which sometimes frustrates people) so when he received numerous tickets in one night, after numerous fines, he came to me for help.
He had backed his vehicle into a parking spot instead of parking head in. He left the car parked there overnight and the following morning had three tickets left tucked under his windshield wiper. He went to the court in Dewey and the judge kindly decided that he would waive one of the tickets (the judge stated that they normally only give one ticket per day [of the two tickets my friend had left one ticket was written on July 7th, 2011, at 11:50 pm and the second was written on July 8th, 2011, during the early morning hours).
My friend paid his two $35 fines and left the court, pleased that he had managed to get one ticket dropped.
On July 30, 2011, my friend, the Dewey Beach small business owner, drove his vehicle to a different area in Dewey and parked while he went into a store to grab an item. When he left the store, item in hand, there was a boot on his vehicle (you know what a boot it, it’s that fun bulky, heavy item that they attach to your wheel to ensure you cannot drive away until justice has been served). He was told that he had received another ticket on July 8, 2011, one that he hadn’t paid. In order to get the boot off his vehicle he was required to pay the $35 ticket cost, the addition $40 late fee, and $80 to get the boot removed. $155 later, my friend drove back to his business, upset and confused. This is when he asked me to come with him to see the judge in Dewey Beach.
I figured that I could easily explain to the judge that my friend had no prior knowledge of this ticket; he was never informed by the town that he owed them money, and he only owed the town $75 for one ticket, any reasonable judge would see that this was a case where mistakes had been made. I should be able to get my friend his hard-earned money back, no problem!
My first meeting with the judge was on Saturday, August 6, 2011. I stood next to my friend and, first and foremost, justified my presence (the judge implied that unless I was an attorney I couldn’t help him plead his case). The judge never asked my name and I never supplied it. I explained to the judge that my friend had no knowledge of the fourth ticket received for the same event, and would have gladly taken care of it if he had only known of its existence. I mentioned that he had never been told of the ticket when he attended court with the three original tickets and the judge looked up at me over his glasses and stated, “Are judges omnipotent?” I looked at his computer pointedly and stated “no”. The judge decided that he needed to see all the original tickets before he could make any judgment or give us any information regarding the case. He asked us what we were trying to contest and I stated that we were contesting the late fees as well as the cost of the boot as my friend was never informed that he owed this debt. I was told, “Ignorance of the law is no excuse”.
The two original tickets which were paid earlier in July were located (the third ticket which was waived was never found). The original of the fourth ticket (which my friend had a copy of from when he paid the fee to have the boot removed) could not be found. The judge told us that we needed to come back during the week and ensure they could find the original of the fourth ticket. He also expressed doubt that my friend was not sent a letter by the town. He implied that he town should have notified my friend of his delinquent fee before the boot was placed on the vehicle.
We returned to the administrative building on Tuesday, August 9, 2011, to ensure the original of the fourth ticket was found. Frank, the man behind the counter, told us that he had found the original (it was filed in a different place, he explained). Frank then told us that no letter had been sent to my friend’s house, as the town of Dewey tends to wait until the season is over before they send out any letters (“we’re just so busy during the season”), however he refused to put this in writing. I asked Frank to put the fact that my friend had never been sent a letter in writing five times and each time he refused.
Today, (Wednesday, August 10, 2011) we returned to speak to the judge. I was excited because I assumed that since my friend had no notification his personal property shouldn’t have been seized. It turned out that I was wrong.
The judge looked at the original ticket (which I still maintain may have been the third ticket and the paperwork was filed incorrectly) and told me that the Dewey’s code had been changed this year. According to Chapter 1, Section 13 of Dewey Beach’s code, if you have $70 or more in fines your vehicle may be booted or towed.
There are three different fine levels, $35, $70, and $100. What this means is that if you receive a $35 fine, after 10 days your vehicle may be booted or towed. If you have a $70 fine, after 72 hours your vehicle may be booted or towed. If you have a $100 fine, after 72 hours your vehicle may be booted or towed. I realize that the latter two fine levels are equal to the amount which would put you at the booting or towing levels, but the judge assured me that the town would never boot or tow a vehicle if the owner did not have at least 72 hours to make some kind of payment. The town of Dewey is not required to inform you of this debt.
I was told (by an employee of Dewey Beach, although not the judge, that it is common practice for random people to pull the tickets off vehicles and throw them away. In other words, it is not always ensured that when the parking enforcement officer places a ticket under your windshield you will receive that ticket.
Regardless, I was visibly upset when the judge told me that the town was not required to inform people that they owe the town money before they tow or put a boot on the vehicle. This judge told me “if enough people raise a fuss about this at the end of the year, maybe they can do something”. Then he said something that is close to blasphemy in my opinion. “There’s nothing you can do to make a difference here”.
I realize that my friend will not receive his money back; I am beyond that. I think that the town of Dewey Beach should not be able to seize your personal property before informing you that you owe them money.
I, for one, am contacting the mayor of Dewey Beach. Her name is Diane Hanson. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and her phone number is (as listed on the Dewey Beach website) (302)-226-5998. I urge you to also contact Ms. Hanson and let her know that people deserve to be informed before their property is seized. This may also happen to you, it may not, but I know that if I were vacationing here and a similar situation occurred to me, I would look elsewhere for my vacation destination in the future.