Hod do judges pick which relevant definition to use?

I know that when a term isn’t specifically defined in law (by legislative action, or relevant contract*) judges will use a standard dictionary. What do they do if a term has multiple, relevant definitions?

The question arises from a picture of a green pickup truck parked in a space marked “reserved for green vehicles”. While not obvious from the picture, it’s unlikely this is a low or zero emissions vehicle (clues in picture point to this vehicle being used for long distance travel in rural areas, including some dirt roads).

I know it’s probably private property where traffic laws don’t fully apply, but if they had to actually consider the core issue, what’s the logic/procedure they would use?

I’m inclined to think they’d favor the least restrictive definition, but that fails the ‘sanity check’ (my term for when people review a result to see if it’s rational and reasonable) I see quite often skimming over a ruling or in legal excerpts (my favorite tech site likes link to full text of rulings when reporting on a decision).

Here’s the picture if you’re interested, or just want to share it. http://i.imgur.com/wfD0Coe.jpg

*relevant contract means the dispute involves a contract which may include definitions for certain terms

I think it’s pretty funny and if I had a green colored vehicle I would also be inclined to park there.

In a case like that the Courts would probably look at the intent of the statute. If this were on public property there would likely be some sort of enabling legislation, such as a ‘Carbon Emissions Reduction Act’ or some such thing which would point the direction more clearly. Granted, one could go to town fighting that ill-considered sign were that the case.

In the picture, the sign is most likely on a private lot and so the judge wouldn’t say anything because a private lot owner can tow you for whatever reason they wish. Some jurisdictions have laws about the specific legalities of this. If this did go to a civil suit, the judge would determine if they thought that this sign was reasonably clear for the owner of the vehicle to understand its intent. They aren’t really going to care about what ‘their’ definition is and rather whether a person who was towed would have had sufficient notice that they were parking against the rules of the landowner. My guess is that since we’re all joking about it and know exactly what it means, a judge would find it sufficiently clear, but who knows?

If this were a public lot and they were ticketing you instead, then I think that they would probably say that it was the onus of the driver to know what the sign meant. The sign is likely referring to something in statute and it would be on the driver to look up the statute and ensure they were following the relevant law. It is highly unlikely that the law would say that certain spots are designated for ‘green’ vehicles. It would likely say ‘for vehicles with a ‘green’ designation from x organization’ or ‘vehicles that get more than x miles per gallon’ or some other more specific legal definition. Usually lawyers are the ones crafting legislation, so I’m sure that it is less ambiguous than ‘green.’

The first question that a judge would need to answer is “why” the issue is in front of him? A legal dispute is generated because a “cause of action” exists. So the starting point is the legal peril that the defendant is threatened with. In the case of your sign, how to resolve the situation would depend upon what the owner of the green truck is threatened with by way of the legal action in front of the judge. That would offer some clue as to what definitions to apply.

Let’s assume that case before the judge is in regard to the parking of the green truck in that parking spot. The actual definition of “green” may not matter. If the property owner had the truck towed for failure to observe the sign, the issue probably wouldn’t be, “does the truck meet the definition of ‘green’?” Rather, the issue would be something like, “Is it reasonable for the truck owner to interpret the sign to include his vehicle?”

More generally, if a term relevant to a case is in dispute, the definition can be settled by agreement of the parties. Assuming the parties cannot agree, each party would propose a definition, backed by relevant authority. This wouldn’t just be Dictionary A v Dictionary B. There might be relevant case law regarding the term. There might be relevant case law on the type of cause of action that indicates one definition better defines the term for that type of case.

As a law student, I once had to deal with something like this. I was interning for a local District Attorney office, and my supervisor was trying a criminal case in which it was alleged that the defendant had trespassed (can’t recall exactly why that was relevant to the crime in question, which, as I recall, was assault of some sort). The jury had to be instructed on what “trespass” was. Amazingly, at the time, no one could come up with a standardized instruction for jurors on the meaning of “trespass” in California, so I was sent off to write up a proposed instruction over lunch. I found it both simple and difficult to do so. I returned armed with a proposed instruction, a relevant definition that supported the instruction (probably based on something in Black’s Law Dictionary), and some citations to cases to bolster my contention. The DA and the defense attorney spent all of 30 sec. looking at it, made one minor adjustment, and agreed to the instruction. That’s as close to having to argue an actual definition as I ever got, if I recall.

That is a nice sign. The property owner could come out and yell at the green pick up driver possibly get away with telling him to move and leave the property or he would be trespassing.

Sign would need some indication about definition of Green. Also sign would need to have a warning about what could happen to a violator of said sign.

The problem with a sign like that is not that “green” could be interpreted as a matter of mere pigment. The problem is that, even if you interpret it as it was almost certainly intended, to mean “environmentally friendly”, that it’s still not clearly defined. The owner of the pickup could argue that the color of his vehicle was just an amusing coincidence, but it’s still a “green vehicle”, because it gets better gas mileage than the average pickup truck. Or because it was made in America, and so no fossil fuels needed to be burned to ship it here. Or because it’s passed all of the state emissions standards. Or because he uses it to go to his job as a wildlife preserve manager.

That’s why a better sign, as senoy says, would be something like “only for vehicles with a ‘green vehicle’ certification from the California Department of Environmental Protection”, or whatever.

In English civil law, these things sometimes come down to “the man on the Clapham omnibus

Without any additional information, parking a ‘green’ vehicle in a space reserved for ‘green’ vehicles does look like the reasonable action of a real person.

I disagree. Reasonable people are supposed to be stupid, and are not mindless literalists. There is no obvious reason why anybody would prioritise parking for vehicles of a particular colour, while prioritising parking for environmentally friendly reasons has a plain policy justification, even if you happen to to agree with the policy. The Man on the Clapham omnibus is very unlikely to think that this sign refers to the paint job.

However, depending on the context, this may not be a matter for the Man on the Clapham omnibus at all. If this is a penal statute - if the matter is before the court because the owner of a green-coloured but noxious vehcle has been penalised for parking there, then any ambiguity will be resolved in favour of the defendant. If the state is going to criminalise something, it has to be clear and unambiguous about what it is criminalising and, if there is any ambiguity, that will be resolved in favour of the defendant. The Man on the Clapham Omnibus frequently thinks that this means the defendant is “getting off on a technicality”, which is how we know that the issue is not determined by appealing to the standards of the Man on the Clapham Omnibus.

In the U.S., it’s called the “reasonable person.”

I was a police officer. At a local hospital, the parking lot is always full. There were four designated parking spaces, nearly always empty, which were signed “Police Parking Only.” On occasions when I would have to go to the hospital off duty, like getting blood drawn prior to a physical, or visiting someone, I was often tempted to park there while in my own car, figuring I would have a pretty good argument before a judge if I was ticketed. After all, I was a full time police officer. The sign doesn’t say “Police car parking.” I never did dare to try it though, didn’t want to be “that guy” to a judge.

Ironically, the signs were actually intended for the Department of Corrections, due to the nearby prison. I imagine “Police” was easier to fit on the little sign, though. Police usually parked in the emergency room area, not near the main entrance.

Perhaps they thought a sign that said “DOC parking only” might have unintended consequences. Like if a guy had the initials D.O.C. or something.

The assumption is that this is a civil and not a criminal matter. Those signs, taken on their own, would have no validity at all anywhere as the basis of a criminal prosecution. In the UK at least, such a sign *could *be enforced if there was a clear indication of the sanctions that might be applied for non-compliance (a clamp with a removal fee for example), but although most people might well understand the meaning of ‘green’ in this context, the omnibus traveller may not have English as their first language and may not be familiar with colloquialisms like this.

Even apart from that, ‘green’ is far too vague for any court to rule on. My car may not be electric, but it does comply with all the latest rules on emissions. Does that make it green, or is there some standard for ‘green’ with which my car does not comply?

If it’s on private property, then its only force would be based on contract. Somewhere at the entrance to the car park there would be a list of terms and conditions that, by entering and parking, you are agreeing to. That contract would define what “green vehicle” means. If it doesn’t and the term is vague (or practically meaningless, unless defined, as this one is), then it would be interpreted against the drafter of the contract.

But if the motorists were not paying to park in the lot, that wouldn’t be a valid contract, right?

ETA: I mean that in the spirit of, a supposed contract under such circumstances wouldn’t be binding on either party, perhaps leaving this to a matter of whether a private party wants to tow a truck off of their property because they simply prefer to.

If there’s no contract, but it’s a parking lot and the public is permitted/invited to park there, then entry under a licence would still have terms. If it’s an employee lot, the employer would inform the employees of the terms under which they can use it. If it’s not a parking lot at all and somebody is trespassing, then yes you remove them.