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County judge declares St. Petersburg's parking ordinance unconstitutional

 
St. Petersburg Parking Enforcement personnel leaves a ticket on a car on First Avenue North. (Times)
St. Petersburg Parking Enforcement personnel leaves a ticket on a car on First Avenue North. (Times)
Published Oct. 27, 2014

ST. PETERSBURG — A judge ruled this week that an ordinance regulating two-hour parking restrictions in the city's downtown core violates the law, sparking questions about an often-buzzed-about topic.

Pinellas County Judge William Overton declared city code section 26-152, which sets out rules for parking limitations in central downtown, to be unconstitutional.

In doing so, Overton sided with St. Petersburg lawyer Chris Sierra, who launched a legal campaign this year after he says the city erroneously issued him a ticket for remaining too long in a two-hour parking space. He argued that the city's restrictions were too vague for drivers to understand.

"They have kind of arbitrary ways of enforcing these things," Sierra said, referring to the city's current method of chalking tires and snapping pictures of vehicles parked in nonmetered, but time-restricted, spaces downtown. "The ordinance doesn't tell you what you can and cannot do. (The judge) agreed."

On Friday, Assistant City Attorney Sharon Michnowicz told the Tampa Bay Times that the case isn't over and that officials have filed a motion for a rehearing.

"I will tell you the city does not agree with the order," Michnowicz said.

So what happens now?

Sierra said he believed the city stopped enforcing the parking code on Wednesday afternoon after being notified of the ruling.

But Evan Mory, the city's director of transportation and parking, said that was not the case. Staffers are still issuing two-hour parking tickets, he said.

"Our enforcement's going same as usual," Mory said Friday. "I know somebody challenged it. I didn't know the judge had ruled. … I haven't been informed to stop anything."

Despite the judge's decision on the ordinance, the city did not have to stop writing tickets, Michnowicz said. Earlier this month, Overton verbally granted the city's request for a rehearing, which means his ruling does not take effect immediately, she said.

Sierra's problem with the ordinance has always been personal.

In January, he parked in an unmetered, two-hour spot in front of his law office in the 600 block of Central Avenue. At some point, he said, he left for a client meeting in Largo.

"I'd been gone for an hour and a half to two hours," Sierra said. "When I came back, I parked back in front of my office, in what just so happened to be the same spot."

Thirty minutes later, Sierra said, someone issued him a ticket for being in the spot too long, despite him leaving in between.

"I've gotten a ticket for overtime before. This one I knew I was in the right," Sierra said. "It wasn't my fault."

Sierra fought his ticket, which a judge dismissed in March, because the lawyer had left the city in between his two instances of parking in the same spot. But Sierra said he heard similar complaints from others who park downtown. A few months later, two women who work in a boutique next to his office got similar parking tickets.

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Sierra took their case, which is what resulted in this week's order.

As written, Sierra said, the code makes it a violation for someone to move their car to a nearby spot to avoid getting a ticket, which he said is common practice.

Particularly interesting, Sierra said, is a sentence that reads:

"The changing of the parked position of a vehicle from one parking space directly to another parking space within the same block on either side of the street or roadway shall be deemed one continuous parking period."

Sierra also argued that the code doesn't indicate whether the two-hour limit means two consecutive or cumulative hours. He also said since the word "block" is undefined, a person doesn't know where exactly they can move their car to avoid a ticket.

The city disagrees.

"Our position is it's not vague," Michnowicz said.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story. Contact Kameel Stanley at kstanley@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8643. Follow @cornandpotatoes.