Bob McCown of Lanham was feeling pretty proud of himself. He had just bought a 1977 AMC Hornet at a federal government auction for $1,825 -- about $1,200 less than the same car would have cost at a dealer's. And even though the car had been through the wringer of the General Services Administration motor pool, it seemed to be in good shape.
Which was more than could be said for Bob shortly after he arrived at the College Park office of the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration, where he went to obtain a title for his Hornet.
Having checked the state motor vehicle code, Bob knew that a title was going to cost 5 percent of the car's purchase price. But the first move the MVA clerk made stunned him.
"The guy picked up a copy of the National Automobile Dealers' Association Blue Book (the price bible of the nation for automobiles) and discovered that $3,025 was the 'fair market value' for a 1977 Hornet," Bob said.
Then, even though Bob had papers to prove that he had bought his Hornet for $1,825 at auction, the clerk demanded that Bob pay 5 percent of $3,025. The difference was $60.
Understandably, Bob appealed to a series of supervisors. And, unlike most man-vs.bureaucrat struggles, he won.
State MVA headquarters in Glen Burnie checked Article 13-809 of the code, which said that title tax can be collected on either the purchase price or the fair market value. When Bob pointed out that there's no fairer market value than the price paid for a car at auction, the MVA agreed to tax him on the basis of the auction price.
Despite victory, Bob is still upset -- and if you're planning to title a car in Maryland on which you got any kind of a price break, you ought to be, too.
"What galls me is that a branch of the government is being run on the basis of verbal policy," said McCown, who is a research program manager for the U.S. Department of Transportation. "It's all at the option of the clerk, and there don't seem to be any guidelines."
Rita McMahon, assistant director of MVA's Vehicle Registration Division, said situations like Bob McCown's never lead to lasting injustice as long as owners can produce bills of sale.
"We get situations where a man doesn't have a bill of sale and says he paid $4,000 for a car. Then we discover he paid $10,500," McMahon said. "If a citizen doesn't have a bill of sale, we're going to question it." s
However, she acknowledged that Article 13-809 is "a little unclear."
"I guess nobody's going to write a tax law that's clear-cut," she conceded. "We wish they would."
So do we, Rita.
Maybe he was heroic, and maybe he was foolish. Whichever, John Greenwell was the star of one of the more bizarre episodes of the local July 4 weekend.
Greenwell was operating a sidewalk fireworks stand on the evening of July 3 at 5001 Connecticut Ave. NW when a man walked up, drew a .25-caliber pistol and demanded money.
Greenwell refused, and began wrestling with the gunman. Several citizens helped subdue and disarm him. One shot was fired, but no one was injured. No money was stolen.
Ordinarily, except for a few sighs of relief, that would have been that. But in this case, Greenwell revealed to detectives that he had $4,000 in cash at the time of the attempted holdup. The figure was reported in thousands of Washington Posts the next morning.
"Why did this guy tell you he was carrying so much money?" I asked Bud Haley, the 2nd District detective who investigated. "Doesn't he know that holdup men can read? You never see a bank or a big retailer do that."
"Sometimes you do," said Haley. "If businesses want restitution from an insurance company, they know they aren't going to get it unless a figure is listed on a police report.
"In Mr. Greenwell's case, the situation was different. No money was stolen, and he comes out of this a hero. I can't see any harm in him telling us he had $4,000.
"Now, I do think it's foolish that Mr. Greenwell didn't have somebody come by and pick up his cash every hour or so," Haley said. "But I don't think the man with the gun knew he had $4,000, and I think he would have settled for a lot less."
Agreed, Bud. Still, if I'm ever held up, I can't help thinking that I'd cause myself future problems, not prevent any, by telling the world how many dollars I was carrying.