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BEHIND THE WHEEL

A 'For Sale' Sign Can Point to a Ticket in Some Cities

Local officials say impromptu used-car lots distract drivers and clutter streets. But such laws may violate free-speech rights.

July 20, 2004|Kevin Pang | Times Staff Writer

On the afternoon of April 24, Ryan Price walked out of her mother-in-law's Santa Ana home to her car. What happened next would launch Price into a three-month legal tiff involving her family, City Hall and the 1st Amendment.

Attached to the windshield wiper of her silver 2000 Acura Integra was a traffic ticket. Price looked up and down the residential street in bafflement -- she had not parked near a stop sign, a fire hydrant or in a red zone. The car was within a permissible distance from the curb.

The ticket itself was just as mysterious. Cryptically it noted that she had violated city ordinance 41-1301(a) at 3:27 p.m.

Confused, Price walked back to her mother-in-law's apartment. The two searched on the Internet and found out why Price was fined $54.

Her car was ticketed because she had a "For Sale" sign in its rear window.

"I was completely shocked because I've never heard such a thing," said the 30-year-old middle school English teacher. Beyond her outrage over the law itself, Price -- who lives in Covina -- wondered: "How I was to know that I wasn't allowed to post [the sign] in the city of Santa Ana?"

Price had run afoul of a law that many cities have adopted to cope with problems that "For Sale" signs can cause by cluttering up neighborhoods and distracting drivers. Those laws have been under a legal cloud, however, since a federal court in 2000 tossed out a similar ordinance in Los Angeles.

Representing a man who was fined $35 for placing two "For Sale" signs in his car that was parked on a city street, the American Civil Liberties Union successfully argued that the law violated his free-speech rights.

"The court cannot fathom how a sign in a parked car is more dangerous than the same sign in a moving car," Judge A. Howard Matz wrote in the ruling, Burkow vs. City of Los Angeles. "As to the indisputably important 'aesthetic' concerns, defendants could minimize alleged harms with measures far short of outright prohibition."

Chastened by the ruling, many other cities have backed away from similar laws.

The city of Orange, for example, has asked the Police Department to not enforce its law because of the Los Angeles ruling and will consider repealing the law, said City Atty. David DeBerry.

Orange is exploring other means -- such as posting "No Overnight Parking" signs on major thoroughfares -- to deal with the problem, which can be serious, DeBerry said, citing on-street parking near a youth soccer field that is consistently taken up by cars for sale.

"Drivers will slow down on the street and they won't be paying attention to what they're supposed to do, which is driving," DeBerry said.

Huntington Beach also has a no-sign ordinance on the books, and similarly, their police officers do not issue citations. City spokeswoman Laurie Payne said the city attorney is reviewing the code.

In Santa Ana, however, city officials concluded their law was still valid.

Paula Coleman, an assistant city attorney for Santa Ana, said the city felt its interpretation of the law -- broader in scope in terms of how the advertisement is displayed -- was "legally distinguishable" from Los Angeles' overturned ordinance.

The Santa Ana city code declares that "No person shall park or place a vehicle ... upon a public or private street, parking lot or any public or private property for the purpose of displaying such vehicle ... for sale, hire, or rental or for other advertising purposes."

She added that Santa Ana officials strongly believe that "For Sale" signs in car windows cause problems.

She said several hotspots in the city became "de facto used-car parking lots" on weekends. One Santa Ana police officer, she said, recalled non-injury collisions on North Fairview Street when drivers distracted by the signs bumped into each other.

But feeling the code was unjust, Price called on her uncle, transportation activist Wayne King, for advice on how to fight the ticket.

"It's an abridgment of our right of commercial free speech," King said.

A retired engineer, King, 65, took on his niece's case and contacted Peter Eliasberg, managing attorney for the ACLU of Southern California.

Eliasberg, who worked on the Burkow vs. Los Angeles case, wrote a letter on behalf of Price to City Hall. He asked the City Council to repeal the ordinance.

"It's illegal and unconstitutional. The 1st Amendment doesn't just protect political or artistic speech, but also commercial speech," Eliasberg said. "The city has no justification for banning it on every street in the city."

He added: "It falls hardest on people who don't have the money to place an ad in the newspaper."

King said he contacted the city attorney's office, where officials told him his niece's ticket would be dismissed. Two weeks later, King called Santa Ana's citation information hotline to check on the ticket's status. The ticket was not yet dismissed, and now included an additional $50 delinquency fee.

After confronting several Santa Ana city officials at an Orange County Transportation Authority board meeting with the ACLU's letter in hand, the city said it would look into the case.

Several exchanges later, on July 11, King learned that the ticket was dismissed.

Although the city backed down in the Price case, Coleman said she was unaware of any move to repeal the law or stop enforcing it.

Price is under no illusion that she and her uncle made legal history with the case, but said it was still worth fighting for.

"It's one of life's annoyances. There has to be more important things than this one," Price said. "But if it wasn't for Uncle Wayne, I'd be out $104."

Better yet, she was finally able to find a buyer for her Acura Integra. It sold for $9,400.

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