Oh, how it costs to own a Mercedes-Benz. But it can cost in ways you never imagined, as David Li of Bethesda recently discovered.

David was parking his Benz near the Tenleytown Metro station when a D.C. police officer stopped him for driving with an expired sticker on his license plates. There was no question that the sticker had expired. The only question was whether the officer would issue David a ticket.

After a short discussion, the officer did. David took the ticket and was walking back to his car when the officer said, "Wait a minute, I forgot to write down the amount of the fine."

David handed the ticket back, whereupon the officer said:

"Since you drive a Mercedes, I think a fine of $100 would be appropriate."

David said that since the officer's tone was half-joking, and since a $100 fine was obviously excessive, he assumed the cop was kidding. He found out otherwise a couple of months later when the D.C. government computer wrote to inform him that his unpaid ticket had doubled, and he now owed the city $200.

Outrageous? Of course. Undoable? Only through that grisly gauntlet known as the Office of Traffic Adjudication.

"What I recommend in a situation like this is that the citizen go to a hearing," said Officer Shannon Cockett of the D.C. police information office. " . . . . In many cases, the fines are reduced."

Officer Cockett said it was obvious that David's fine should have been what it is for everyone else: $25. "The officer has no authority to decide the amount of the fine," she said. But the only way David can do something about this outrage is to kill as much as half a day of his own time, or more.

David is still so stunned that he's trying to decide if he'll brave the grisly gauntlet, or simply pay up. Meanwhile, a thought for the officer who issued him the ticket, and for other officers who might be so inclined:

Mercedes owners may have more money than you or me. But they didn't pay more for their stickers, so they shouldn't pay more when the stickers expire.

Elsewhere in the Man's Inhumanity file . . . .

A woman from Beltsville called with a Fourth of July story that is not the sort of thing our forefathers intended -- or suffered.

She went to the Takoma Park parade that day with her family, which includes a 7-year-old son. The family got there early so it could take up positions as close to the street (and the passing show) as possible.

As 7-year-olds will, my caller's son asked for a balloon. His mom gladly bought him one. Shortly after the parade began, the boy was standing there, watching and holding his balloon, when . . . .

BANG!

The guy standing behind the boy had taken out a key and had punctured the balloon.

Shocked, the mother asked why he had done it.

"Because it was in my way," the guy replied.

Didn't apologize. Didn't say why he hadn't asked the kid to move two inches to the right or left. Didn't offer to buy a replacement. Just went on watching the parade as if he didn't have a care in the world.

A tale of rule-bending from that monument to madness, Interstate 66:

"I ride in with a car pool every day from Annandale to my job with the U.S. Coast Guard," writes Joseph Young. That qualifies Joe and friends for the HOV lanes. But every day, they see cars beside them with D.C. tags and only the driver inside.

"When they pass the police who are monitoring HOV compliance , they hold up their IDs or point to a small antenna on their trunk. The police do nothing, and they proceed on their merry way.

"I think they are FBI or Secret Service (I followed one, and he drove into the FBI Building). Now, Bob, I understand the need for law enforcement to use the highway, and I am glad to get out of their way when duty cries. But these guys are driving back and forth to work, and I don't see a lot of difference between them and someone from Commerce who is trying to cut out 20 minutes of commute every day.

"Is it the 'old policeman network?' "

I think that's exactly what it is, Joe. Just because those HOV cheaters work for the FBI or the Secret Service doesn't mean they have the right to break the rules -- or to ask the Virginia State Police to let them break the rules.

Ain't-It-The-Truth offering from Saretta Zitver of Bethesda:

Three or four in a row they are nestled,

In crinkly clear wrap, yet I'm foiled

For no matter how closely I scan them,

At least one tomato is spoiled.