The City of Concord has an ordinance that prohibits parking on downtown city streets for longer than 30 minutes between the hours of 2 and 6 a.m. The defendant was cited for violation of the ordinance at approximately 4:30 a.m. on a date in October 2002. The defendant opted not to pay the fine, and the matter was heard in the Concord District Court. Following a trial, the defendant was found guilty, and he appealed the matter directly to the New Hampshire Supreme Court. Given the small amount in controversy, this is one of those rare occasions when a citizen appears in an appellate court and seeks to right a perceived injustice. In this case, however, the court applied the familiar principle that ignorance of the law is no excuse, and the municipality prevailed.
At trial, the defendant argued that the city had failed to adequately post the parking prohibition because it was not posted at the location where he parked the automobile. The statute enabling the adoption of city ordinances, RSA 47:18, requires that city ordinances must be kept on file at the office of the city clerk, and notice must be published in the newspaper. These steps were taken, but signs were not erected on the street locations where parking spaces were lined out. The Court declined to impose a requirement to erect warning signs at parking locations throughout the city, indicating that the manner of posting of ordinances was a matter left to the legislature and the local governments.
While the Court’s holding saves municipalities the expense and headaches attendant to erecting and maintaining signs to warn of every local parking control ordinance, the case also serves as a caution to municipal officials. If the subject of the ordinance is more obscure than a parking restriction, and an ordinary person would have no reason to know that the conduct is prohibited at a location, the lack of a warning sign may induce another court to find a due process violation and refuse to enforce the local ordinance.
The case is also noteworthy because the defendant successfully appealed directly to the New Hampshire Supreme Court. One statute, RSA 47:21, directs that an appeal from a district court determination of a violation lies with the superior court, while another statute, RSA 599:1-c, directs the appeal to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court decided that because RSA 599:1-c was enacted more recently, it was the statute that would control such appeals. The Court invited the legislature to clarify the conflict between the two sections, and we can expect that the issue will come forward in that arena. Until then, adjudication of even these very minor infractions can result in a full appeal to the Supreme Court.