Years’ worth of parking tickets might’ve been wrongfully issued in Downtown Memphis | Evanoff

Ever fume over a parking ticket?

John P. Pritchard did.

He parked his old Ford Explorer in a center city back alley and strolled around the corner to the Bardog for dinner.

Leaving the tavern a while later, he found a parking ticket on the Ford’s windshield.

Some tickets he has paid. Not this one.

He immediately decided to fight the $50 ticket put on his Ford four years ago by a Downtown Memphis Commission employee.

Here’s the thing: He won.

Here’s the big thing: He did not argue he deserved no fine. He concedes he parked in the alley too long. But he went to court anyway. 

He argued the Downtown agency had no standing to ticket any vehicles. 

A Tennessee appeals court agreed.

Nothing in the city rule book — that is, the ordinances enacted by the Memphis City Council — says the Downtown Memphis Commission can ticket vehicles.

“While DMC staff may have issued the parking tickets as part of a long-standing practice, we have determined that the Memphis Code of Ordinances do not authorize the issuance of traffic citations by these individuals,” Judge J. Steven Stafford of the Appeals Court of Tennessee writes in the June 24 ruling.

Pritchard, an attorney who has practiced criminal law in the city nearly 36 years, isn’t quite sure what his verdict means for other drivers issued parking tickets for a decade by DMC.

“We’re talking about thousands of people who went through this,” he said. “It became a revenue thing for them (DMC). I’ve had clients who came to me and they paid $1,200, $1,800, $2,000 to get their car back (from the police tow compound) based purely on tickets issued by the Downtown DMC.”

The agency, set up decades ago to bring Downtown back to life, curbed its ticketing procedures last year after issuing tickets since 2010.

Pritchard appealed the $50 fine to Shelby County Circuit Court. That court sided with him, and DMC appealed to the Court of Appeals of Tennessee, leading to the June 24 ruling by a three-judge panel. Its members were the judges Stafford, Kenny Armstrong and Carma Dennis McGee.

Memphis trial lawyer Murray Wells, who represents Pritchard, said he might create  a class-action case in Shelby Circuit seeking to represent other drivers ticketed by DMC. First, he wants to see if DMC appeals the June 24 ruling to the Tennessee Supreme Court.

“We don’t think it’s right to file a class action until the Pritchard matter is resolved,” Wells said. “Eventually this may make it to the (state) supreme court.”

Asked on Friday to comment about the matter, DMC officials released a response from City Hall’s chief legal officer, Jennifer Sink. The response says a city ordinance enabled DMC to ticket vehicles beginning in 2010 and the Downtown agency stopped the practice last year.

“The purpose of the ordinance was to free up Memphis Police Officers from being solely responsible for writing parking tickets in this designated area, so they could devote time to other issues,” says the DMC email sent Friday containing Sink’s response.  

“The DMC stopped writing parking tickets on March 12, 2019, and has never received any money generated by these tickets,” the email says. “Any money received is handled in the same manner as parking tickets written by a Memphis police officer.”

The legal tiff opened after Pritchard parked his old Explorer, a 1990s model gifted from a sister, on Center Lane Alley around the corner from Bardog on July 19, 2016.

He had parked in alleys before. One night, he turned on the Ford’s flashers, but came out of the tavern to find the battery drained. He wrote a note about the dead battery and put it on the dashboard, saying he’d move the vehicle in the morning.

Pritchard came back the next day and said he found four DMC parking tickets on the windshield. He went to Memphis City Court and had the tickets dismissed, but his research led him to wonder whether DMC was going beyond what city ordinance allows.

He decided the next ticket he got he’d test the theory. After it came — it’s the July 19 violation — he looked up old friend Murray Wells. Four lawyers put in about 90 hours combined to fight the $50 ticket. 

They reasoned the city ordinance allows DMC employees to obtain a parking summons through Memphis City Court, then serve the summons requiring the driver to appear in court. But only police officers could actually issue a parking ticket to a vehicle.

DMC’s lawyers told the three-judge appeals panel the agency was authorized by ordinance to regulate parking and this regulatory authority automatically extends to issuing traffic citations.

Stafford disagreed in the June 24 ruling.

“The definition of a traffic citation, however, indicates that other than police officers, individuals giving out these citations must be ‘authorized by law.’ While DMC was granted broad authority over parking issues in the relevant area, nothing in those establishment statutes indicates that that DMC staff are authorized to issue parking tickets through that grant of power,” Stafford says.

However this case is resolved, it points to the newfound popularity of the old center city.

When Downtown was decayed and dying, that old Explorer could have stayed in the alley for days and no one would have minded.

But now, tourists come to see the sights, and new lofts, condos and apartments, and restaurants and bars fill those old blocks.

Parking is at a premium, a reason those eager Downtown Memphis Commission staffers over the years were able to hand out thousands of parking tickets.

Ted Evanoff, business columnist of The Commercial Appeal, can be reached at evanoff@commercialappeal.com and (901) 529-2292.

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