One of the more understandable parking signs in Philadelphia. (Danya Henninger/Billy Penn)

💡 Get Philly smart 💡
with BP’s free daily newsletter

Read the news of the day in less than 10 minutes — not that we’re counting.

Rob Elliott and his family just wanted cheesesteaks. They had spent the winter holidays together, and were headed to Philadelphia International Airport in early January to drop off an adult son for a flight.

The son had come for a visit from England, where he studies journalism as a graduate student, and wanted one last taste of home before his departure. The family found a parking spot near Fourth and South Streets, but hesitated before pulling in. They did not want a ticket, so they read the signage carefully.

They interpreted it to mean the spot was reserved for handicapped parking, “except” during certain hours marked in green type. The family had arrived during one of these windows, so they thought they were safe. The father, mother, son and daughter all studied the words together and agreed. Yet 45 minutes later, when they returned to their vehicle with full stomachs, they discovered a $301 ticket in the windshield.

They felt duped — and they’re not alone. 

To head off complaints about confusing signage, the Philadelphia Parking Authority offers online tutorials for deciphering their sometimes cryptic messages. “When it comes to parking, reading and understanding a sign is the difference between getting a parking ticket and remaining ticketless,” one post says.

Yet even if Elliott had memorized the 170-word explainer on the most relevant PPA article, it might not have helped. The sign included with the article is different from the one he encountered on the street. It omits the conjunction “except,” which changes the meaning. To Elliott, his situation felt more like a money trap than an attempt at clear communication.

Rather than accept the civil charge, he decided to fight back. More than anything, he wanted reform. “I felt my next step was to contest the violation at an in-person hearing with hopes that I could put the city on a path to editing the sign,” he said.

The U.S. Constitution guarantees “due process,” the Pennsylvania Constitution uses similar language, and Philadelphia law promises the availability of in-person hearings for anyone who wants to dispute a parking ticket. So Elliott should have had triple protection, giving him a clear path to a neutral hearing officer. What he encountered instead was a bureaucratic maze more confusing than the parking signage itself.

The PPA website says Elliott could submit a written defense online or send an email. But what he wanted was a chance to hear the allegations against him and have a discussion. “I am not confident at all that I can properly contest via their online form,” he said. “The public is entitled to a hearing — at least a Zoom or conference call.”

That doesn’t happen in Philadelphia.

Despite city laws guaranteeing “the right to contest a violation at a hearing in person,” the PPA splashes a “customer alert” in red across its landing page for disputes: In-person hearings before the Bureau of Administrative Adjudication (a separate city agency) are available only after the PPA boots or tows a vehicle.

Elliott’s case will not get to that point because he can afford to pay his ticket. “I am more concerned about those whose whole life is thrown off kilter due to the size of the fine,” he said. 

And he still wants a hearing.

Without basic due process protections, Philadelphia runs the risk of becoming a larger-scale version of Wilmington, Delaware. A 2021 lawsuit accuses this nearby city of weaponizing its parking enforcement to maximize revenue, while taking unconstitutional shortcuts to rob people of reasonable opportunities to defend themselves.

A PPA parking ticket on a car windshield. (Danya Henninger/Billy Penn)

Wilmington resident Ameera Shaheed received repeated tickets for a legally parked vehicle. While the appeal of her tickets was pending, the city towed her car and refused to release it unless she paid several hundred dollars. Shaheed couldn’t raise the funds within 30 days, so the city let a private towing company keep and scrap her car, and collect the entire value for itself.

She and other vehicle owners responded with a federal complaint. Our public interest law firm, the Institute for Justice, represents them. While the case unfolds, Philadelphia should look inward at its own practices.

All Elliott has gotten so far is silence. He has called multiple city numbers seeking clarity, but no one has answered or returned his calls.

Philadelphia demands perfection from motorists. If they misread a sign — no matter how convoluted the language — they get dinged. 

All Elliott wants is his day in court. That shouldn’t be too much to ask.

This article has been updated to add mention of the Bureau of Administrative Adjudication, a separate city agency that hears parking ticket disputes and is in charge of granting hearings.

William Aronin is a trial attorney who joined the Institute for Justice in February 2020

Daryl James is a writer at the Institute for Justice in Arlington, Virginia.