By Rick Rojas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 17, 2009
Mark Zaid was driving to a baseball game recently when a driver coming in the opposite direction flashed his lights. It was a warning: Montgomery County police had set up an enforcement zone.
As a common courtesy, Zaid says, he flashed his lights back. A police officer saw it and issued him a $50 citation, telling Zaid that it was illegal in Maryland to flash headlights while driving and that he could actually be charged with something worse: "obstructing a police investigation."
That officer might have picked the wrong guy to ticket: Zaid, of the District, is a lawyer who represents government whistleblowers. He believes he did nothing wrong. "The more I thought about it, I realized I'm going to make an issue of this," he said.
Zaid appeared in Montgomery County District Court yesterday to fight the ticket. The officer who issued the citation, near Westlake Drive in Bethesda, did not appear -- he is on military leave, according to Montgomery police -- so the judge dismissed the ticket. Now Zaid is demanding an apology and says he will file a lawsuit if he doesn't get one.
Montgomery County police defended the citation, saying Zaid was violating a state law that prohibits driving with flashing lights.
Zaid isn't alone in his anger. The issue of whether motorists have a right to warn others about enforcement zones has been the subject of much debate across the United States and Canada, though there has been no definitive court ruling. In Franklin, Tenn., one man spent more than $1,000 to fight a $10 ticket.
David Rocah, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, agrees with Zaid. Rocah said the state's law "clearly refers" to flashing lights as an "adjective, not a verb." He said that means it is not legal to drive with a continuously flashing light on a vehicle, but flashing a light once to communicate with someone on the road is not a violation.
"There's no debate," Rocah said. "What [Zaid] did was not illegal."
Lt. Paul Starks, a Montgomery police spokesman, said the law does allow an officer to issue a ticket for warning drivers of an enforcement zone. "It's very general," he said.
Starks said the department does not have a policy on such tickets and the issue will be discussed.
Although opponents scoff at the enforcement zones as a way to raise revenue, Starks said the zones are set up when residents or business owners complain about a speeding problem. Moreover, he said that the number of tickets issued for flashing lights has been "insignificant compared to the number of tickets issued."
Zaid doesn't see it as insignificant. As a lawyer whose career has included representing government whistleblowers, suing a congressman for libel and tackling constitutional issues, he thinks he's found a case of the government overstepping its bounds.
"I like making the government jump through hoops, because they do it to everyone else," Zaid said of his work.
When the officer who ticketed Zaid didn't show up in court yesterday, the judge also dismissed all the other citations the officer issued at the enforcement zone.
"I knew it was bogus, ridiculous and no judge would uphold this," said Stephen Coyne, who received a ticket in the same area as Zaid.
Coyne, who was pulled over while driving home from church with his son, was also cited after he flashed his lights to thank a driver for warning him.
Staff researcher Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.