Fighting sign law wins kudos from judge Engineer-lawyer gets accolades for traffic law arguments


Citing the logic of Benjamin Franklin, the wisdom of Thurgood Marshall and the distractions of the television show "Baywatch," an Ellicott City software designer delivered an argument in traffic court yesterday that left the judge and even the opposing attorney offering their compliments.

Philip Marcus is challenging two $24 parking tickets he received in April under an unusual Howard County ordinance that forbids residents from posting for-sale signs on cars parked on public streets. At stake, argued Marcus, is nothing less than the sanctity of free speech.

"Such a paternalistic law -- furthering the aesthetics of a few while trampling on the constitutional rights of all -- must not stand," he argued during the 70-minute hearing in Howard County District Court.

The case could have large implications in Howard County, where strict sign restrictions are treasured by locals. Howard roads, they are apt to tell you, don't look like Ritchie Highway.

Yesterday's hearing only delved into the specifics of the car-sale law. No other jurisdiction in the Baltimore metropolitan area has such a law, according to county officials.

And the courtroom arguments over it were decidedly high-level.

Marcus, 54, holds a master's degree in electrical engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He cited nine precedent-setting cases, during which he invoked both Franklin and Marshall. His opponent, County Assistant Solicitor F. Todd Taylor, cited 18 cases -- including a 1981 case in which the International Society for Krishna Consciousness unsuccessfully challenged restrictions on distributing literature at the Minnesota State Fair.

Howard County District Court Judge R. Russell Sadler, impressed by both arguments, is scheduled to rule Nov. 21. Before leaving the bench yesterday, he told Marcus: "I think the principles you raised here are very impressive. As a citizen you should be commended."

Marcus is no stranger to the courtroom. He was an attorney from 1973 to 1985, and said he once represented Eugene McCarthy in his unsuccessful bid to join Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford in a 1976 presidential debate.

Since then, Marcus has designed computer databases for a number of clients, including an order of nuns based in Silver Spring that has 7,500 members throughout the nation. He hadn't been in a courtroom in 12 years.

But then the county messed with his efforts to unload a beige Nissan Sentra. Twice in April, the county police wrote him tickets for posting a "For Sale" sign on the car while it was parked along Patapsco River Road in Ellicott City.

Hazard to drivers?

On April 3, Marcus parked the Sentra there. Someone called the county police, who drove out and wrote a ticket. Police say such signs could cause motorists to stop suddenly and cause a wreck.

On April 15, Marcus again parked the car on the same road -- to challenge the law. This time, his solicitation was a bit more discreet, reading: "Because of a stupid and probably unconstitutional Howard County ordinance, I can't tell you whether this car is FOR SALE. For details, please call me at 750-0184." Only the words "FOR SALE" were large enough to be seen by passing drivers.

The police were not amused.

But yesterday, Judge Sadler was. Thirty minutes into the hearing -- when Marcus pulled the sign from his briefcase and gave it to the judge as "defendant's exhibit A" -- Sadler cracked a sly smile. "Eh, eh, eh," the judge chuckled. "It's amusing."

Even the county attorney, Taylor, acknowledged in court: "It is funny."

xTC Marcus' argument boiled down to this: To restrict "commercial" free speech, the county must have a specific reason. And it does not in this case. In other counties, where the car owners post their signs on public streets, there is not a rash of sudden-stop wrecks.

Marcus also listed examples of legal, potential distractions along Howard County roads:

For-sale signs on cars parked in private driveways.

Signs offering goods and services, with the phone numbers of vendors.

Life-sized billboards of the stars of the popular TV show, "Baywatch."

"I assume the court is familiar with the TV program, 'Baywatch,' " Marcus said.

The judge shook his head no, even as he giggled into a cup of water he was drinking. It was then that Marcus' old instincts of court deference apparently kicked in. "I'm not suggesting that your honor watches the TV program," he said.

Kudos from judge

The "Baywatch" cracks aside, Sadler said he's never seen a traffic ticket argued with such constitutional clarity. The judge retired two weeks ago after 16 years on the bench and now makes guest appearances to help unclog crowded dockets.

Marcus "is an excellent lawyer," Sadler said after the hearing.

Taylor, the county attorney, agreed. He said he needed 30 hours to respond to Marcus' detailed, pretrial motions.

The county argument: It does not restrict whether residents can hang "for-sale" signs on cars. It simply restricts where residents can do so. Such limits on commercial free speech are supported by the U.S. Supreme Court, Taylor argued.

But he commended Marcus for standing up for his principles: "One thing about our society and our [legal] system is that it allows people to do this sort of thing."

Pub Date: 10/25/96

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