NH parking meter "Robin Hoods" off the hook... for now

In some cities they call them parking meter angels. In New Hampshire they are apparently known as parking meter Robin Hoods. No matter the label, they are the folks who follow around parking enforcement officers and put money into expired (or about to expire) meters before the official can ticket the car’s owner. What’s not to like?

In the Granite State there seems to have been plenty… enough at least for the city of Keene to take the matter all the way to the state supreme court. But their ruling this month means that the Robin Hoods can keep doing their good deeds, although with certain limits.

The conduct of a band of self-styled “Robin Hoods” who feed about-to-expire meters while following parking enforcement officers is protected under the First Amendment, though the city of Keene has a right to pursue an injunction against them in the interests of public safety, New Hampshire’s highest court ruled Tuesday.

City officials said they have no problem with the meter-feeding — a reaction to what the group calls “the king’s tariff”— but want to protect the officers from harassment. Some said they’ve been bumped and assailed with profanities. The city argued for a buffer zone for its employees.

The Robin Hood group, which carries rolls of dimes and quarters, records its time outside and posts videos online, sometimes showing members following the parking enforcement officers. The not-so-merry band said it is protesting parking enforcement because it believes parking is not a criminal act and that parking tickets are a threat against people. The city said some of its officers felt they were harassed, including one who didn’t feel safe and changed her work schedule to avoid them.

When I first heard about this story I thought the city was complaining about the act of feeding the meters itself, but they’re actually not. Of course, if the court had said that the activity needed to stop entirely as a result of their decision, they likely wouldn’t have complained too much. (I’m willing to bet that there’s more than a little grousing going on behind closed doors over the loss of income to the city coffers.) But in this case, the complaint was that the meter maids (meter misters?) said that they felt unsafe, threatened or harassed by the Robin Hoods.

I’m not sure what motivates the parking meter angels in other towns aside from perhaps just wanting to stop somebody from having their day ruined. In New Hampshire, however, the Live Free or Die folks are trying to make the case that parking law and fines are outside the realm of what the government should be regulating in the first place. Honestly, I’m not sure what the basis is for a local government being able to regulate how long you leave your car in a given spot aside from safety issues which can arise when they need to plow the roads in the winter. Then again, it doesn’t scream out as something which is beyond the power of the local (not federal) government either.

In the New Hampshire case, the courts are willing to allow that the officers felt unsafe and are suggesting some sort of buffer zone around them or other protections. Nothing wrong with that, I guess. And as far as the Robin Hoods go, you might save yourself a few bucks if they feed the meter for you. But the unspoken objections by the city (and others like it) are the real story here. Parking in a parking spot for more than fifteen minutes is not a danger to society or even a serious disruption. And even if it were, how is this looming threat defused by the act of putting four more quarters in a box with a timer inside of it? If the town wants to have no cars in particular locations during given hours to allow access for municipal workers, then fine… just post the parking hours and ticket the vehicles which remain there after the specified time. But parking meters are a scam which generate money for the town and nothing more. I don’t know that it’s an illegal scam given the latitude we provide to local legislators, but it’s still just a money making opportunity for them at the expense of the drivers.

This is really no different than speed traps in small towns situated on larger state or county roads, so it’s understandable that people would be upset about it. The local government has plenty of avenues for raising revenue through taxes, land use fees, permits and the rest of mechanisms they employ to dip into our pockets. Good for the Robin Hoods. But I somehow doubt that the city fathers are capable of experiencing enough shame to get rid of the meters.

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