Why Milwaukee’s Parking Enforcement System Might Be Unconstitutional

When it comes to parking enforcement, the City of Milwaukee has a problem. Local media have concluded from interviews and public records that the City issues parking tickets without paying close attention to whether they are warranted. In 2011 alone, the City reportedly canceled over 38,000 parking tickets, often because they were plainly unjustified. Nearly 8,000 tickets, for example, were issued for “expired” parking meters that in fact had not expired. Given personal experience, I have little doubt that these figures are accurate.

The extremely high number of unwarranted tickets is not an accident. Instead, it appears to be the result of a policy to issue tickets indiscriminately for the singular purpose of revenue enhancement. The City’s manager for parking enforcement practically admits as much; he recently told a local news station that the policy “is to issue the citation and straighten it out later.” Media coverage suggests that the City implements this policy through an informal quota system: Several employees of the Department of Public Works have revealed that supervisors expect enforcement personnel to issue certain numbers of tickets per shift for specified areas, and that supervisors punish those who fail to meet quotas by handing out undesirable shift hours. In other words, enforcement personnel are under the gun; unless they want to work at 3:00 in the morning, they have to issue bushels of tickets. Because this system appears to give credit even for unjustified citations, there is little incentive for personnel to make sure that they issue citations only when deserved. So the high error rate is no surprise. The effect is to impose upon thousands of law-abiding residents the burden of either paying a fine or establishing the absence of a violation. For many, the hassle is worse than the dollar value of the fine.

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Peters v. West: Three Strikes

In my previous post, I dissected the problematic recent Seventh Circuit copyright decision in Peters v. West. I won’t recap that long post here, except to say that the Seventh Circuit appears to have collapsed the traditional two-part inquiry for infringement in the prima facie case for copyright infringement to one part, with proof of access as a weird (and optional?) hanger-on. As the Peters court summarizes the test that will govern going forward: “[P]roving” — and, I guess, pleading — “the basic tort of infringement simply requires the plaintiff to show that the defendant had an actual opportunity to copy the original . . . , and that the two works share enough unique features to give rise to a breach of the duty not to copy another’s work.”

There are at least three bad consequences to this: it gives jury determinations to the judge; it makes the already controversial “sliding scale” doctrine incoherent; and it sounds the death-knell for substantive limits on liability for copying outside of fair use.

First, the two different sub-elements of the infringement half of the prima facie case have been understood at least since 1945, and even in the Ninth Circuit’s jumbled version of the test, to allow a division of labor between judge and jury in a copyright infringement case. Actual copying, including (if necessary) a showing of “probative similarity,” is a merely forensic task, one that stands at the gate of the field where the ultimate liability determination will be fought out. The issue is to determine whether there’s been any copying at all as a factual matter. It is to copyright law as “causation” is to negligence law. I may have been speeding, but if I didn’t actually hit your car, the case is over. As a forensic rather than policy determination, courts have long allowed the component works to be examined in microscopic detail for evidence of actual copying, including hearing from expert witnesses. After receiving this evidence, the judge can determine that there’s no genuine issue of material fact as to actual copying and grant summary judgement for the defendant — or nowadays, I suppose, can determine on a motion to dismiss that the complaint does not adequately plead a plausible case of actual copying.

The other “substantial similarity” test is supposed to be much different than that, one that the jury is especially adept at determining, at least in a music case like this one.

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There Is No Joy in Mudville

At least, not if Mudville is populated by copyright professors; for the mighty Seventh Circuit has struck out. In Peters v. West (Kanye West, that is, or as LEXIS is now abbreviating the case name, “W.”), the Seventh Circuit, in an opinion written by the highly regarded Judge Wood, has badly bungled the already confused test for establishing a copyright infringement claim. I’ma let you finish, Judge Wood, but Judge Newman had one of the best explanations of this test of all time.

The elements of a prima facie copyright infringement claim have long been confusing to students, lawyers, judges — pretty much everyone. (A brief copyright lesson follows; if this is old hat to you, skip 4 paragraphs down.) Essentially, there are only two elements: ownership and infringement. But the second element is broken down further into a set of sub-elements, and courts have long had difficulty explaining the content and the relationship of the various sub-elements clearly. The basic idea, however, long ago expressed in Second Circuit opinions by Judges Learned Hand and Jerome Frank, is that proving infringement is supposed to be a two-part process: proving that the defendant actually copied material from the plaintiff’s work, and proving that the amount copied passes some sort of threshold for materiality.

There are two significant points of confusion with the test.

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