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Camping citation woes.
November 15, 2011 4:42 PM   Subscribe

If a park ranger gives you a citation for violating the terms of a permit, is "Other rangers told me it's ok when I got the permit" a valid defense? Also, what are my obligations when no court date is specified on the citation?

Stayed the night at a boat-in campsite on Tomales Bay the other night (it was fantastic) but on the way out a ranger gave us a citation because only part of our party had kayaked in, while the others took a public trail.

These campsites are "boat-in only", and our group is honestly trying to do everything by the book (fire permits, bringing own wood, taking out all waste, etc). So when I originally called for the permit, I asked the nice lady if it's ok for some of us to hike in while the rest of us boat in since the kayaks can't bring everything we want to bring. She says the trailhead has no overnight parking. Fine, I say, what if the boaters drop us off with our gear and then park somewhere legal to launch the kayaks? She hesitates for a bit, since this is clearly an unusual request, but ends up okaying it and gives me the permit.

I pick up the permit the day before, and talk to another ranger (who's name is on my permit) and he asks me where we're boating from and which beach we're staying at. I tell him the details of our plan, and he also hesitates a bit, and then goes ahead and gives me the permit.

Now I don't remember if either of them explicitly told me that it would be ok, but they certainly didn't do anything to dissuade me from doing this, and didn't mention that I would be violating some condition of the permit. From my perspective this look a lot like a quiet approval. I had no idea this was in violation of the rules, since I interpreted "boat-in" as "you'll need to boat in to get here", not "you may only boat-in".

So the ranger finds some of us hiking out afterwards, I tell him my story and that we really had no idea this wasn't allowed, and that two rangers didn't tell us not to. He cops an attitude, seems not to believe me, and tells me "I've been through the same training they have, and I know that boat-in only means that you can't be doing this." Fine, whatever, don't want to argue with this guy, I'll just take my day in court. I sign the citation and start walking away. "I'm not done with you yet!" Now he's clearly angry, I wait around another 15 seconds while he talks some more, and then he let's me leave, but only once he's fulfilled his power-trip by making it clear that I can't leave until he tells me to.

Do I have a valid defense in court because I was totally up-front with the first two rangers about my plans? Or should I just pay the fine? I suspect I committed whatever crime I'm being cited for, but it's unclear to me what these mitigating factors will do in a court of law.

Also, the citation doesn't have a court date. Should I wait until I'm mailed one? Will I be mailed one? He told me that I won't be receiving anything in the mail. Does the citation have legal weight, or is it more of a "please pay this if you hope to come to Pt Reyes again", because after this debacle I'd be quite happy ignoring this and not going back.
posted by ilikemefi to Law & Government (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Your ticket should have a contact number (it should also have a court date, as far as I know.) The bigger parks have information that indicates that "court" is held at the park site, though I suppose smaller parks might send everything to a bigger park nearby.

And it's a citation from a federal agency, so you really need to pay it. At least, I certainly would.
posted by SMPA at 5:06 PM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm not a park ranger, but I was a forest ranger who often dealt with this sort of thing. Do you have a valid defense? No.

Can't answer as to the specifics of the citation but I'd just pay it as it may follow you to other camping areas.
posted by sm1tten at 5:07 PM on November 15, 2011

You may or may not have a "defense," but that's really not relevant.

Find out which authority has the ability to reduce or waive the fine. Tell this authority your story in the most neutral, facts-only way possible. Leave out the bits about how the ranger that fined you was a dick. Ask for a reduction or waiving of the fine on the grounds that you did your best to follow the law and were guided wrong by not one, but two different permit-granting people.

You may or may not meet success doing this. Either way, I think you should send a letter to whoever is the head of that park, explaining once more what happened and requesting that ALL the park staff be 100% clear on the rules so no one else is caught out in the same way you were.
posted by kavasa at 5:28 PM on November 15, 2011 [7 favorites]

I was just about to post just about the same thing as kavasa. I'm really curious to know what exactly is on your citation. Is it a payable fine, summons to appear in court, a warning?

There is some chance that because the two of you didn't hit it off that he failed to tell you that it was just a warning. I've had a few of those over the years and usually park rangers take the time to explain why certain rules are so important.
posted by snsranch at 5:37 PM on November 15, 2011

Thanks so much kavasa, that's a great idea. I'll certainly write a letter to the head of the park.

Not sure where to start looking for authority to modify the fine. If this is somebody in the judicial system, wouldn't my method be to go to court, or is there some way I can write a letter to some appropriate judge/court person as a method of addressing the fine? Is it possible that somebody within the park administration has this capability?

The citation has a payable fine, but no court date. Don't know if it's technically a summons, but I presume the existence of a fine ($175) makes it a non-warning.
posted by ilikemefi at 5:46 PM on November 15, 2011

Where does it direct you to send the fine? That may provide some clue as to who has the authority to modify it.
posted by wuzandfuzz at 5:57 PM on November 15, 2011

The fine goes to the Central Violations Bureau. Looks like their job is to process fines for citations of petty offenses on federal property. I doubt they have much authority over the amount of the fines, but I'll send them a letter/email and see what happens.

So I've got the two longshots of contacting the CVB and the Pt Reyes administration. Any other ideas for who to contact?

Thanks so much for the help everybody. I like MeFi :D
posted by ilikemefi at 7:40 PM on November 15, 2011

In the FAQ section of CVB link there are a few things that might help:

I want to contest my ticket in court, but I don't have a court date written on my ticket.
You will be notified by the Central Violations Bureau of your court date by mail. You will receive a Notice to Appear usually within 4 to 8 weeks from issuance of the ticket.

Can I request community service, probation, or deferred prosecution?
Please appear on your scheduled court date for any special requests.

So it sounds like if you want special consideration, including a possible reduced fine you have to appear in court,
posted by edgeways at 7:49 PM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

There's a legal defense in this situation called estoppel by reliance.
posted by mikeand1 at 7:51 PM on November 15, 2011

1. that is English law
2. and while IANAL I am having a hard time seeing how it would apply even if it was American law
posted by edgeways at 8:00 PM on November 15, 2011

Oof, it looks like court is necessary if you want to try to reduce or eliminate it. That makes things more intimidating. That said, as it is a court, I would be quite surprised if it didn't have the authority to do whatever it wished with the fine.

Definitely come prepared to pay the whole thing though! This may be one of those really crappy situations where you just get stuck. :(

Personally, unless you're an attorney, I'd stay away from trying any sort of rule of law things. Since it's a court for petty fines, they'll hopefully be willing to guide you through the process of explaining your situation and asking for a reduction.
posted by kavasa at 8:01 PM on November 15, 2011

Maybe you could have the ranger you spoke to on the phone summoned to testify? Because that was the crux, there. You wouldn't have done it if she hadn't said it was okay. It's too bad, I would have done the same thing. What site was this? I camp and hike up there a lot, and now I'm wondering what bullets I dodged by walking down trails around there!
posted by zomg at 8:48 PM on November 15, 2011

I was just about to suggest what zomg just said.

Do you know the dates/times you spoke to the Ranger on the phone, and the Ranger you got the permit from? You could easily contact the director of the Park and supply that information, along with a photo/copy of your ticket (which should also have that Ranger's name) and ask, in a total novice/confused way, because you are, what are the options from here.

Also, lay it out on the line that you're also trying to help out there customer service here. Explain that you believe you got go-ahead from two Rangers, but that a third, the one who gave you the ticket, contradicts the instructions/approvals of the other two. Make sure you write out what you believe to be the best quotes/paraphrases from your conversations in a non-confrontational way, and remember that you're not trying to poke the bear here, but if you've asked about this type of situation then others have before, or will in the future, and you just want to be sure that nobody else gets confused and ends up getting cited.

good luck
posted by zombieApoc at 6:37 AM on November 16, 2011

zomg, this was at Marshall beach, which is the only boat-in campsite that has trail access. It's a pretty nice beach and if you bring binoculars there's some good birdwatching. Also there are a few old abandoned houses on Laird's Landing that might be worth exploring.

I'll be writing to the director of Pt Reyes today to (a) ask for any advice/help on my situation and (b) to let him know there is a conflict in policy there.

I'll post an update here when this is done to let you guys know how this ended up.
posted by ilikemefi at 9:19 AM on November 16, 2011

Update, in case anybody is still following this thread: No response from the head of Pt Reyes yet, and a court date has been scheduled for mid-January.
posted by ilikemefi at 3:47 PM on December 27, 2011

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