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(photo by Brandon Wise)

DOWNTOWN — What began as a typical dispute over a parking ticket has snowballed into a legal battle that could eventually involve dozens of drivers who challenged citations issued by the Santa Monica Police Department over the last two years.

Residents Harriet and Stanley Epstein have filed a lawsuit against City Hall claiming they were not properly notified as to why the parking citation they were challenging was ruled to be valid, something which is required under the California Vehicle Code.

Harriet Epstein was issued a parking ticket on Feb. 2, 2011 for allegedly parking at Reed Park and then leaving to run an errand. Parking there is for park patrons only. The fine was $64.

The Epsteins, who are often critical of City Hall, said that under the California Vehicle Code, city officials and the hearing examiner hired to deal with those fighting a ticket are required to provide a written explanation as to why a citation is valid. The lawsuit claims City Hall issued a very generic form letter that included no explanation why Harriet Epstein’s defense wasn’t sufficient enough to get the ticket thrown out.

“Harriet’s guilt is not the issue in this case,” Stanley Epstein, a retired real estate attorney, said. “This issue is whether or not the city followed clear, unequivocal language of the statute. Without the city following state law, we have anarchy.”

Included in the lawsuit, filed June 8, are ACS State & Local Solutions, Inc., a New York-based company contracted by City Hall to process parking tickets, and Sheri E. Ross, the hearing examiner hired by City Hall. The lawsuit was filed earlier this month in Los Angeles Superior Court.

The Epsteins are prepared to ask the court to make it a class action lawsuit to include all those who challenged citations on or after Jan. 1, 2009 when the vehicle code was amended to require explanations on why citations are ruled valid.

Last fiscal year, City Hall collected a little more than $12.9 million in parking citation revenue, according to Don Patterson, revenue operations manager for City Hall.

City officials said City Hall’s policy is to not comment on pending litigation.

City officials did release a press release in May regarding changes to the parking system, including a reference to the Epstein’s inquiry and that of others regarding parking citations. In the press release, city officials said they reviewed the level of information provided to those who are fighting their tickets and found that letters mailed out “provide the minimum information required by law.”

That said, city officials wanted to improve customer service and have since begun providing more details in the letters, city officials said. Those who recently appealed a parking citation and would like additional details on why the citation was upheld during the appeals process, can e-mail their request with the citation number to parking.office@smgov.net.

The Epsteins claim city officials were notified of the change in the vehicle code by ACS but never made changes until the Epsteins raised the issue.

“It seems to be clear on its face that the city has not been complying with the vehicle code section …,” said Eric Benink, the Epstein’s attorney. “I’d be upset about it if I put in the time and effort explaining the reason why I didn’t think the citation was valid and then get a boilerplate response.”

Benink said City Hall was served with the lawsuit last week. The suit calls for City Hall to provide all those who have fought a ticket and lost a detailed explanation as to why the violation was ruled to be valid, and to allow those people to have a new administrative hearing if the time for that hearing has expired.

kevinh@smdp.com