Adams-Morgan resident Frank Graves didn't know it, but he had the law on his side when he gingerly approached neighbor Jackie Shives one day in December and asked her not to curb her two leashed pooches near the seed bed he was hoeing in the triangular park at 20th Street and Wyoming Avenue NW.

Had either Shives or Graves known of the District's 11-year-old police regulation requiring pet owners to clean up the deposits left behind by their animals, however, they might not have gotten into the shouting match that ensued and apparently ended in a few minor blows.

The 1972 regulation makes failure to pick up a pet's droppings a misdemeanor subject to a $50 fine or five days in jail.

Graves said his request to Shives was justified because he had just spent the afternoon preparing the soil for planting flowers, at his own expense, in the public park near the high-rise where he lives.

Shives, walking her cocker spaniel and golden retriever pup last week in Kalorama Park, said she figures there is enough room in cities' parks for both people and dogs and she always keeps her pets away from the frisbee players' spots.Graves and Shives are not the only ones unaware of the regulation, Adams-Morgan leaders say. Edward G. Jackson, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Adams-Morgan since 1976, said he stumbled upon District police regulation 77-20 about a year ago, when he went looking for a solution to the dog dirt that litters the area's parks, streets and sidewalks.

Jackson, who was chief organizer of the mayor's citywide beautification program, "Make a Visible Difference," last year and heads Advisory Neighborhood Commission 1C's environmental cleanup committee, said he gets "calls all the time about this problem," especially from "ladies who step into the unforseeable matter on their way to church" and from mothers who complain the parks and fields where youngsters play have turned into "pet latrines."

The little-known law, Jackson said, can become a means to expand a continuing neighborhood effort to clean up Adams-Morgan by holding pet owners responsible for what their dogs do.

The City Council apparently enacted the legislation on the coattails of New York City's well-known 1971 scoop law, as did many other jurisdictions across the country, including Montgomery County.

Police say they cannot determine whether a single citation has ever been issued for a violation of this law, but a spokesman for the D.C. Corporation Counsel said he could not remember any prosecutions stemming from it in recent years. Several 3rd District police officers said they have never written a ticket to a negligent pet walker.

"We're just too busy," said Police Officer D.A. Schram, an eight-year veteran of the force.

Nevertheless, when Jackson and his committee discussed their concerns with 3rd District Deputy Chief Rodwell Catoe, "he told us he was amenable to the idea, that his men would respond," Jackson said.

The committee decided the problem was one of communty awareness, so it ordered 300 signs spelling out the law--200 in English and 100 in Spanish--from the Lorton Reformatory sign-making shop.

Six months later, the signs are gathering dust in the Adams-Morgan ANC office while, according to Jackson, city officials wrangle over whether they can be legally posted.

Last week, a spokesman in the Corporation Counsel's office said the legality of the signs is a Department of Transportation issue. But an attorney for DOT said that because citizens have taken the matter to the Corporation Counsel, he feels obliged to wait for a decision from that office. Corporation Counsel Judith Rogers said she was not aware the citizens had requested such a ruling from her office.

Interest in Adams-Morgan's sign plan is spreading into other neighborhoods, notably Mount Pleasant and Dupont Circle, Jackson said.

"Meanwhile, folks continue to permit their pets to put their manure in the streets," ANC 1C chairman O'Bryant Kenner said.

City officials estimated close to 100,000 dogs relieve themselves publicly two or three times a day in the District. Ingrid Newkirk, the District's acting chief of animal disease control, said, however, that based on the small number of reports of Toxocara canis, the only common infection communicated to humans through canine feces, animal litter in the District does not appear to pose a public health threat so much as a public nuisance.

But Adams-Morgan community leaders and others contend animal litter is a growing problem in the city. One city official called it a byproduct of regentrification in areas, such as Adams-Morgan, to which middle-class residents have been slowly migrating, bringing their pets with them.

"You see them out walking their dogs. They're your white affluent professionals or their maids," said Eric Benisti, who works at Meridian House International, across from the posh Beekman Place Condominiums at 16th Street and Beekman Avenue NW. "And it's funny," he said, "they never let them go on their own side of the street."

"It's not something we suddenly noticed, although I think it has gotten worse," Kenner said. "It's something we decided we could do something about if the law is on the books. We said, 'Why have the law if you are not going to enforce it?' "

Now that the Adams-Morgan campaign appears hung up over the legality of the signs, Jackson has called a special meeting of his environmental committee at 6 p.m. Monday in the ANC office, 2318 18th St. NW. He said DOT, the Corporation Counsel's office and the 3rd District police have promised to send representatives.

"The problem is that they went ahead and purchased these signs without checking to see whether they would be able to put them up," said Karen Benefield, special assistant to the assistant director of traffic engineering for DOT.

"From what I can see, they want to raise the consciousness level of the public about this law. But I'm not sure that couldn't be accomplished with a flier as opposed to a permanent sign."

"Every time you put up a sign, it detracts," said Gary Altman, acting general counsel for DOT. "We're talking about public space."

And, Altman said, "a private citizen can't put anything into public space."

But for now, at least, man's best friend can.