A Ticket On a Taurus Grows Into Much More
Tuesday, January 16, 2007
The Great Virginia Parking Ticket Battle began with a burst of expletives one Saturday morning in October 2000, when Woodbridge resident Robert W. Eberth, a retired Navy captain, found a $35 citation on the windshield of his 1990 Ford Taurus. NO VALID STATE INSPECTION, it said.
Eberth had been ticketed under Prince William County Code 13-322, mandating up-to-date inspection stickers for vehicles parked on public roads. True, Eberth had allowed the Taurus's registration to lapse. But he was saving the car for his teenage son and had parked it in the private lot of his apartment complex.
Eberth examined the ticket. He cursed a little more. Then he looked up 13-322 on the Internet.
"Something is very wrong with this picture," he said to himself. He checked the box marked "contest."
Over the next six years, representing himself in multiple court battles, Eberth took his parking-ticket dispute all the way to the Virginia Court of Appeals. Last month, he won.
A three-judge panel in Alexandria went even further than Eberth had imagined, ruling that Prince William had no authority to ticket vehicles with expired inspection stickers parked on private -- or public -- property. The ruling by Judge Robert J. Humphreys said state law prohibits only the operation of a vehicle with an expired inspection sticker, casting doubt on whether police anywhere in Virginia can ticket parked vehicles with expired stickers.
Because Prince William's code dates to at least 1965, the ruling suggests that the county has been erroneously citing drivers for more than four decades. Since 2000 alone -- the year Eberth got his first of three tickets -- Prince William has written 29,871 citations under Code 13-322, for fines totaling more than $1 million.
In Prince William, parking enforcement officers have been instructed to stop issuing citations for expired inspection stickers on parked cars. But police in Fairfax and Loudoun counties, as well as other Northern Virginia localities, said they were unaware of the ruling and were still issuing such tickets.
In the meantime, county attorneys in Prince William are scrambling to draft legislation for the General Assembly that would authorize ticketing of parked cars with expired stickers. County residents who have paid such fines won't get their money back. "If they haven't contested, that's the end of it," said Paul B. Ebert, commonwealth's attorney for Prince William.
Eberth's long, tortuous journey from Taurus owner to parking-ticket avenger is a tale of dogged persistence, sheer outrage and crafty improvisation. A Vietnam veteran who is a research consultant with the U.S. Marine Corps, Eberth, 62, is the type of man who keeps military time and has little patience for the vagaries of petty bureaucracy.
"I've led people in combat. I've had guys killed in Vietnam under my command," he said.
Over the years, Eberth has come to see his parking-ticket dispute in the grandest legal terms. It wasn't about the $35. For him, at stake was a larger, constitutional fight against government excess, abuse and violations of the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment.