Crime Scenes: Parking agents are no-shows

Whit MacCuaig took off work to fight his $252 ticket for double-parking in front of his Gough Street rowhouse. He went to court Thursday dressed in a suit and armed with photographs and a letter from a city councilman pleading for leniency.

Turns out, he didn't really have to go to court at all.

District Judge Charles A. Chiapparelli found MacCuaig not guilty before he could fully rise from the gallery bench, a scene played out over and over again during the 9 a.m. docket in Room 6 at the John R. Hargrove courthouse on South Baltimore's Patapsco Avenue.

Not a single parking agent showed up for the court session — the result of what city officials called a paperwork glitch that has bedeviled the agency since November and resulted in hundreds of dismissed cases over the past few weeks.

The no-shows on Thursday prompted Chiapparelli to dismiss or find people not guilty in 75 cases.

One by one, Chiapparelli read the names of the agents who wrote the tickets.

"Agent Malone?" the judge said, in one example. "No response."

Then he read out the names of the people who got the tickets.

"No witness. Case dismissed," he repeated, over and over and over again.

He sped through virtually the entire docket in 13 minutes, pausing only so his clerk could keep up with writing dismissal notices. He called out "Agent N. Scott," who wrote MacCuaig's ticket back in September.

There was no response.

He called for MacCuaig to stand.

"Not guilty," the judge said.

"It's a joke," MacCuaig said a few minutes later in the hallway, pleased he had emerged victorious but grumbling about the failures of the judicial bureaucracy.

Adrienne Barnes, a spokeswoman with the city's Department of Transportation, said the agency "takes very serious the appearance of our parking control agents in court. When agents are scheduled for court, we monitor to assure agents are present and prepared to address the docket."

But she said that starting in mid-November, "an error has occurred between the courts, Parking Fines and the Department of Transportation that has caused some scheduling problems. We recognized there are some improvements that need to be made, and will bring all parties together to make the necessary adjustments."

A spokeswoman for Maryland's judiciary said officials would look into what happened, but she said court administrators had no knowledge of any paperwork mistakes that would keep parking agents from knowing court dates.

Chiapparelli refused to talk to a reporter Thursday, insisting that the interview be done in open court in front of a gallery and as part of the court proceeding. The Baltimore Sun reporter refused that condition, and the judge referred all questions to the District Court's chief administrative judge, who did not return calls.

Even if no-shows by parking agents are widespread, the loss of revenue as a result of the dismissals is a small percentage of the total take for parking fines, according to the most recent statistics available published in an internal report compiled for former Mayor Sheila Dixon.

In 2008, parking agents wrote 396,613 tickets with fines totaling about $13 million.

Just 11,054 people challenged the tickets in court. But they made the right call — 95 percent of them emerged with some sort of victory. Judges found 10,558 people not guilty, dismissed their cases or reduced their fines. The report says that judges threw out more than $1 million in parking fines between 2006 and 2008.

The spectacle in Chiapparelli's courtroom on Thursday was stunning. People awaiting hearings filled the seats, while a bench marked with a sign, "For parking agents," remained empty.

Chiapparelli found only one person guilty — a man who illegally parked in a residential neighborhood — but he reduced the $52 fine. "How about five dollars," Chiapparelli offered the delighted miscreant, who happily accepted the offer.

That was the total amount of fines the judge doled out at the hearing.

Everyone else watched as the judge basically ripped up their tickets before they could say a word. Even people who didn't show up had their charges dismissed. Only a handful of people who failed to check off the box requesting the parking agent show for court had to present a case.

And they too escaped penalties.

The principal of a charter school in Bolton Hill complained that city workers parked in their spaces one day, forcing staff to park in the neighborhood. She showed up with a stack of tickets given to her teachers. "All gone," Chiapparelli said.

To a man ticketed for illegally parking in a parking lot: "I'm not sure my authority extends to parking lots," the judge said, "so not guilty." To a man who said he parked in front of a doctor's office to get his sick father inside, the judge said again, "Not guilty."

MacCuaig never got a chance to tell his story.

His story is that he got home late from school and double-parked in front of his house. He put his laptop inside so he wouldn't have to carry it back through the neighborhood after what he knew would be a long search for parking.

MacCuaig would have argued that Gough Street is wide enough to accommodate a double-parked car without impeding traffic, and he didn't want to make himself a target on streets where police were still searching for groups of men involved in several violent attacks.

His story, told by Crime Scenes last month, generated heated responses from some residents who felt MacCuaig was holding himself above the law and deserved to be punished; others who called him a victim of a vindictive city agency that lacks common sense.

Councilman James B. Kraft wrote in a letter that his constituent was "taking the steps needed to follow police safety recommendations."

The councilman said in an interview that doubling to $252 was meant to target drivers blocking traffic. The council last week worked to fix the problem by voting to cut double-parking fines to $100 and give residents a 15-minute window to double-park in front of their houses.

A spokeswoman for the mayor said she will sign the new bill, while officials say it will be difficult for parking agents to enforce.

MacCuaig is pleased that he doesn't owe the city money. Part of the reason he was leery about walking home with his computer is that he has been a victim of crime. His house was burglarized and police arrested two suspects.

Their trial was to have begun Dec. 10, and as he did on Thursday, MacCuaig showed up in court, only to find out the case had been postponed until May.

"And guess what," he said. "I didn't get notice."