John Kelly's Washington

Missing car reveals security shortcomings -- and perhaps a bit of parking karma

By John Kelly
Tuesday, September 21, 2010

My sympathy for the woman who lost her Lexus when the Secret Service ordered it towed away from its parking space near the Washington Convention Center, the subject of a front-page story Monday, diminished considerably when I read that she'd parked in a handicapped space.

Oh, she displayed a handicap tag on the Lexus. It's just that, according to the story, she's not handicapped. Her husband is. That would be the husband who wasn't with her when she parked at Fifth and Massachusetts NE on Saturday for the Congressional Black Caucus dinner.

Now, there's no excuse for the Secret Service or the D.C. police not writing down where the car ended up after it was towed, but I have to think parking karma was at work.

Reader Ted Landphair of Takoma Park wonders whether this is more common than we think; that is, the appropriation of handicapped spots not by cars that don't have handicapped tags but by people who have the tags but aren't actually disabled. Do some people think it's the tag, and not the person, that entitles them to the parking perk?

Ted realizes this is a touchy subject. How are we to know what sort of disability a person has? The last thing you want to do is shout, "Hey, buddy, you look fine to me!" and then watch, mortified, as he unscrews his artificial leg.

As with seats on the Metro, I think we have to start from a benefit-of-the-doubt position. The problem is that, given human nature, some people will take advantage of that. Any ideas?

And on your right . . .

The Institute for Justice sounds like a superhero collective headquartered in a mountaintop aerie, but in fact it's an Arlington County-based libertarian law firm that's always on the lookout for ways it thinks the government is trampling the little guy. When last I met the folks from the institute, they were helping Gaithersburg's Mercedes Clemens fight for the right to massage animals.

Remember Mercedes? She's the human masseuse whom the State of Maryland forbade from performing horse massage. I became fixated on her case, not least because I just like typing the words "horse massage." Mercedes won her battle, but I'm not so sure how I feel about the institute's latest crusade.

Last week, it filed a lawsuit against the District charging that the city's tour guide licensing laws violate the First Amendment. Its argument: Why should someone have to actually know about the city of Washington before charging tourists to show them around it?

You see, to get a tour guide license in the District, guides must pass a 100-question test and pay fees totaling about $200. That bothers the Baltimore-based owners of a Segway tour company, who hire young people over the summer to lead rolling tours of Washington. You've probably seen these helmeted tourists, looking self-conscious going down Pennsylvania Avenue. The company's owners feel that hiring licensed tour guides, as opposed to seasonal employees, is an onerous expense.

The institute is ridiculously apocalyptic in its descriptions of the dangers of D.C.'s regs, raising the specter of taxi drivers being thrown in jail for pointing out the Washington Monument. What bothers me the most, however, is its cavalier attitude toward history.

"What harm is there in a bad tour guide?" asked Bob McNamara, the institute attorney handling the case. He said it didn't trouble him that in a similar case in Philadelphia, a tour guide there insists on telling children that Betsy Ross sewed the first U.S. flag. She just loves the now-debunked story and doesn't want to disappoint the kiddies. That's the sort of thing that makes my blood boil.

Bob doesn't think tourists need the consumer protection that comes from official licensure. They can trawl around on the Internet to find out who's good.

Maybe voluntary licensing would be all right, a sort of two-tier system where guides who want to advertise their credentials can pay for accreditation and the rest can just hang out a shingle and hope for the best. "What does 'D.C.' stand for? Er, 'Decent Calamari.' "

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