Montgomery County's top state law enforcement official, the man charged with prosecuting criminals from trespassers to murderers, is personally going after a new breed of criminal - the parking violator.
For the past week, state's attorney Andrew Sonner, fed up with hordes of illegally parked cars clogging the spaces meant for the use of visitors to his Rockville office, has been writing out his own $5 and $10 parking tickets for cars that over-stay the two-hour limit.
His ticket-writing campaign has been a huge success, he says, opening up spaces that has appeared to be lost to errant violators forever. It has also caused a small uproar in the county attorney's office, where officials say Sonner has no authority to do what he is doing.
Sonner says that he does - that a state's attorney in Maryland has the legal power to prosecute all criminal violations, and if he has the right to prosecute people, then he has the right to charge them. Besides, he says, he had to do something about the situation.
"For days and days, the lot would be filled up from 8 a.m. to the close of business at 5 p.m. with no spaces at all for the people who need to come to our office," he said. "We had to do something."
An aide, Timothy Clarke, said that for the past year and a half, since the state's attorney's office had moved to its present location in a four-story building near the county courthouse, people who had to come to the office on business had been unable ot find parking spaces.
Sonner said that the final straw came just over a week ago, when "we had a meeting here where people had come from miles around, and they couldn't find one single space. We asked the police to come, and when they didn't, I asked one of the court officials at our meeting what to do. He suggested getting a ticket book and using it. So I did."
Sonner gave out 24 tickets last Friday but only three or four a day afterwards as word got around.
Francis Lacey, who as assistant Montgomery County attorney has been researching the matter, concluded that not only is Sonner exceeding his authority but he's been doing it all wrong - not citing the full statute on some tickets and sometimes fining the violator the wrong amount of money.
"If an idividual wants to pay a ticket, he should pay it," Lacey said. "If he wants to take it to court and fight it, he can challenge his (Sonner's) authority to issue it."