Commas Count in Ohio Court

Lynne Truss explained the importance of the punctuation mark that looks like a lonely eyelash best in her book Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.

The title of her book was inspired by the story of a panda who walks into a restaurant, orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and fires twice before walking out. He looks at a confused waiter and says, “I am a panda. That is what we do. Look it up.”

Of course, the waiter who knows the answer is only a Google away does investigate and finds all pandas do eat shoots and leaves. But it is the rare bear that eats, shoots, and leaves a restaurant.

Ah, the under-appreciated importance of our punctuation friend, the comma.

Some writers use far too many. Others don’t use enough.

The latter was the case in an Ohio community. And Judge Robert A. Hendrickson in the 12th District Court of Appeals ruled, with far more impact than even the most self-important editor or elementary school teacher could possess, that commas do count.

The case involved Andrea Cammelleri, a woman who parked her truck on a street in West Jefferson, Ohio, for a day, and by doing so violated the village’s ordinance that prohibited parking any “motor vehicle camper, trailer, farm implement and/or non-motorized vehicle” on a street for more than 24 hours.

Ms. Cammelleri was busted by an efficient township police officer.

Her 1993 Ford truck was not only ticketed, it was towed away and impounded.

But she refused to pay her fine, arguing that she had not parked a trailer, farm implement, non-motorized vehicle or even a “motor vehicle camper” on the street. She had parked a truck.

Ms. Cammelleri pointed out that if the ordinance read “motor vehicle, camper, etc.” she would have gladly paid the fine as part of her civic duty because her truck is certainly a motor vehicle. But it does not come close to being a “motor vehicle camper.”

She lost.

The trial court judge decided that anyone in his or her right mind would realize when reading the ordinance in context that it unambiguously applied to motor vehicles and "anybody reading [the ordinance] would understand that it is just missing a comma." Ms. Cammelleri was found guilty of violating West Jefferson Codified Ordinances 351.16(a) and ordered to pay court costs.

But that was only round one.