By Joe Smillie
Peninsula Daily News
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TACOMA –– She fought the law, and she won.
Leanne Potts, a Sequim woman ticketed and facing a fine of $125 for entering Olympic National Park during the federal government shutdown last October, was found not guilty of trespassing by a federal judge after a brief bench trial this week.
“I don't have too much of a celebration planned,” Potts said in a telephone interview. “Maybe a Storm King hike.”
Potts, 32, was one of three drivers ticketed in the Barnes Point parking lot at Lake Crescent on Oct. 12 by Park Ranger Jennifer Jackson for “Violation of Closure (Government Shutdown).”
Potts was there to hike Mount Storm King with a friend. Only Potts, who had driven her car to the park, was ticketed.
Potts said the U.S. Attorney's Office told her she could have been hit with a $5,000 bill that included court fees had the federal judge not found her not guilty on Wednesday.
“I think they did that just to scare people into paying the fine,” she said.
Olympic National Park and all other National Park Service sites nationwide were closed during the 16-day government shutdown after Congress failed to enact legislation appropriating funds for fiscal year 2014 or a continuing resolution to provide interim appropriations.
Average park visits dropped 24 percent to 134,726 in October 2013 compared with a three-year October average of 177,431 between 2010-12, according to a National Park Service report issued this week.
Park-visitor-related spending dropped 24 percent to $10.6 million last October, compared with the three-year October average of $14 million, according to the Obama administration report.
Regular government operations resumed — and Olympic National Park reopened — after an interim appropriations bill was signed into law.
In the meantime, signs were placed in front of entrances to Olympic's popular attractions, including Barnes Point off U.S. Highway 101 at Lake Crescent.
It was there that Potts was ticketed by a park ranger during the shutdown.
The federal Central Violations Bureau, which processes tickets written by federal officers, reported that Potts was the only one of seven people ticketed in Washington state who challenged the fine all the way through.
“I'm glad I stuck it out,” she said. “I thought about just paying the fine, but I'm glad I decided to fight it all the way.”
The case was heard before U.S. Magistrate Judge Brian Tsuchida in U.S. District Court in Tacoma.
Potts said Tsuchida agreed with her argument that the wording on the driveway sign that was stuck to a sandwich board declaring the park closed — “Because of the federal government shutdown, this National Park Service facility is closed” — was unclear.
“He just said he believed I was there because of how confusing the sign was worded,” Potts said.
Emily Langlie, spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's Seattle office, said Friday that Tsuchida had not said that the sign was confusing, but that Potts made an “honest mistake” when she drove around two barricades to enter the closed park.
Langlie, who attended the trial in the U.S. Courthouse in Tacoma, added that Ranger Jennifer Jackson testified and that Tsuchida said Jackson was “doing her job.”
Potts had said that no witnesses were called for the hearing.
Port Angeles teacher Kelly Sanders was ticketed the same day as Potts when she took a group of foreign exchange students for a hike to Marymere Falls.
She decided to pay the fine rather than take days off work for several trips to federal court in Tacoma.
Army veteran Benjamin Schrenzel of Sequim also was ticketed for trespassing when he went mushroom picking with a business associate Oct. 9.
Schrenzel's fine was dismissed out of court through an agreement with the U.S. Attorney's Office, though he did have to pay a separate $125 fine for picking too many mushrooms.
Clallam County Sheriff Bill Benedict and Port Angeles Police Chief Terry Gallagher both urged federal officials to drop the citations shortly after Potts and Sanders received their tickets, saying the ranger used poor discretion in writing the citations.
Jenny Durkan, then the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Washington, denied the top lawmen's requests.
Sequim-Dungeness Valley Editor Joe Smillie can be reached at 360-681-2390, ext. 5052, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.