Iwent to parking court this week to battle for justice, to preserve my honor and to avoid coughing up $52.
Rather than hiring a lawyer, I served as my own advocate. My courtroom performance did not go exactly as I planned. It's safe to say I represent no threat to the livelihood of lawyers.
At issue was whether I parked too close to a fire hydrant at the corner of Park Avenue and Mosher Street, a few doors away from my home. The ticket placed on my station wagon said I had failed to give the hydrant at least 15 feet leeway. I contended that a fire engine would have plenty of room to hook up hoses. I snapped photographs to bolster my case. That turned out not to be such a smart move.
Those were the facts of the case, but in dealing with parking tickets, facts have a way of playing second fiddle to emotions.
Rage, for instance, was what I felt when I first saw the ticket, fluttering on the car windshield on a raw winter day. How dare they give me a ticket! I fumed. This was my neighborhood. The car had been parked on that corner a few nights earlier. The corner had been the only parking spot left on the block. Now it was apparent why.
After parking this car, my family drove our other car on a trip to visit relatives during the Christmas holidays. When we returned, a few days later, there on the station wagon was a greeting from a Baltimore parking-control agent. Reading the particulars on the citation I saw that the ticket had been issued on Jan. 1. What a way to start the new year!
Anger soon gave way to plans for vindication. I mailed in the form requesting a court appearance and began plotting my defense. I had plenty of time to plot, about six months.
In the interim, I studied tactics used by other defendants in trials throughout the country.
For a time I considered using the Ken Lay defense: Blame the underlings. Just as Lay contended that he couldn't possibly know everything his Enron minions were doing, I thought I could argue that I couldn't be held responsible for where someone in my household -- my wife, the kids -- had parked the station wagon.
The Ken Lay defense, already weak on a number of fronts, collapsed when the Houston jury said, in effect, if you claim to be the rooster, you're responsible for the whole henhouse.
I also looked at the high-moral-ground tactic. Richard Scrushy, the HealthSouth CEO who beat the rap that he had cooked the books, used this. He convinced Birmingham, Ala., jurors that he was an honest, upright guy. I couldn't go that route. The day I went to court I could find no one to testify, benignly, about my character.
I looked at the reduced-financial-circumstance argument, a tack routinely used by lawyers who claim that a heavy fine would be a hardship on their client. I had a twist on that ploy. I considered arguing that a $52 fine would be too steep for my old car. Looking at my battered 1993 Ford Taurus station wagon with 170,000 miles on it, I figured 52 bucks might represent about 1/10 of its value.
To make that argument work I would have to dress like a man of the people for my court appearanc. I did not. A security guard reminded me of this as I entered the District Court of Maryland, on East Patapsco Avenue.
"You a bailiff?" he asked, looking at my dark blazer, khaki slacks and blue oxford cloth shirt. I told him I was not. "You dress like a bailiff," he replied.
The courtroom was clean and hushed. About 20 plaintiffs sat quietly on benches, like kids waiting to the see the principal.
We all rose as Judge Barbara B. Waxman entered. We then all swore to tell the truth.
I couldn't tell how Waxman, a dignified, soft-spoken woman, distinguished truth from fiction. The ticket-writers apparently did not have to be present. So the accused told their stories and the judge listened. She believed a man who testified that the notice of a parking violation he had received in the mail was a mistake. She dismissed the case against a fellow ticketed for parking an oversized truck on a residential street. He said the truck had been there only 20 minutes while he unloaded a bedroom suite.
When my turn came, I presented my photos and the judge ruled quickly. Guilty. The law said I had to park at least a car-length away from a hydrant, she said. The evidence, which I had produced, showed that I had not. Perhaps showing mercy on someone inept enough to convict himself, the judge reduced my fine to $5.
The court building was new, the personnel treated me with respect, and the parking was free. But one journey through the jurisprudence of parking court was enough for me.