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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Drawing a line between law and grammar

Bob Strick thought the parking sign near the county courthouse was just a wordy way of saying No Permit Required.  (Colin Mulvany)

A little punctuation can make a lot of difference.

When Bob Strick and Vicki Tomsha had business at the Spokane County Courthouse on June 2, they drove around from parking lot to parking lot, looking for some free public parking.

Lot after lot required a permit or some cash.

They thought they hit pay dirt in the little lot at Madison Street and College Avenue, just south of the courthouse. Lot D. The sign read: NO PUBLIC PARKING PERMIT REQUIRED.

Most of us would probably infer the sign’s intended meaning: No parking without a permit. But Strick and Tomsha – both of whom are from out of town and rarely go to the courthouse – said they took the sign at its literal, grammatical, face value: No permit required.

“We thought, ‘Cool,’ and we pulled in,” said Strick, a 71-year-old retired mill owner. “We don’t have signs like that in Kettle Falls. We thought it was a long-winded way of saying this was public parking.”

Strick and Tomsha, friends who had driven separately and met there, returned to find $30 parking tickets on each of their cars. Tomsha looked at the sign again. There was no comma or dash or semicolon or period between NO PUBLIC PARKING and PERMIT REQUIRED. The words were the same size and font, not separated by any space.

“I stood there and read it five times,” said Tomsha, a 64-year-old hospice worker from Deer Park. “I thought, OK, I guess if it had some punctuation in it, it would mean an entirely different thing. … But if you just read it at face value, what it says is what it says.”

So Strick and Tomsha took it to court, armed with a cell phone photo.

And won.

One small step for Bob and Vicki. One giant leap for grammar nerds everywhere.

Don McDowell, the county’s parking coordinator, was good-natured about the whole thing, and said he planned to clarify the sign with punctuation or a line separating the phrases.

But he wasn’t necessarily persuaded of the strength of their case. He noted that another sign at the opposite end of the lot, while no more grammatical, is harder to misconstrue: NO PUBLIC PARKING PERMIT ONLY.

And, he might fairly ask, can you think of the last lot you saw with a sign notifying you that no permit was required? Just a big come-on-in sign?

“I think that’s stretching it,” he said. “There’s no such thing as a public parking permit anyway.”

McDowell, who’s been the county parking honcho for 12 years, is pretty familiar with challenges to parking tickets.

“I had a guy tell me once that he shouldn’t get a ticket because he’s legally blind,” McDowell said. “This is just one of dozens we’ve had over the years.”

McDowell himself got a ticket two years ago for violating a city rule he wasn’t aware of: no parking within 30 feet of a stop sign. The judge was not sympathetic.

“He said, ‘Ignorance of the law is no excuse,’ ” McDowell said.

Strick and Tomsha said they got a similar response when they began making their arguments before Judge Pro-Tem Tom Kelleher. This was July 26 in Spokane County District Court, and they challenged their tickets together.

Tomsha did the talking, and once she opened up the argument over sign grammar, Kelleher started to shut it down, Strick said.

“He said, ‘We’re not going down that path,’ ” Strick said. “She said, ‘Well, I have a picture I want to show you.’ ”

Once he looked at the picture on Tomsha’s cell phone, Strick said, “He dismissed it, just like that.”

I couldn’t reach Kelleher for comment Tuesday, but a court employee confirmed the essence of Strick and Tomsha’s account.

The saga of the run-on sign is not the kind of injustice that will inflame hearts and minds. It’s not exactly the civil rights movement. But for Strick and Tomsha, there was a matter of fairness involved, and they each spent more in time and effort to fight the tickets than the $60 penalty was worth.

“It wasn’t the money,” Tomsha said. “It was the principle of the thing. Our main goal is we’d like the sign changed.”

McDowell says that’s just what will happen. There’s a period or a comma in the future of that sign in Lot D.

“I’m either going to do that or I’m going to put a line between things so it’s two different statements,” he said. “Something to make it so there’s no doubt.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@