I live in the city, two blocks from a Metro stop, so I tend to drive only on weekends. Typically, I will park my car on the street Sunday and not visit it again until Saturday morning. This system worked splendidly for the past 12 years, until one recent Saturday when I found a $50 ticket on my windshield.
The ticket informed me that I was parked illegally in an Emergency No Parking zone, which was true. The zone had been created two days earlier with temporary signage placed by a utility company doing emergency street repairs. My legal parking spot had become illegal during the week, without my knowledge.
Holding my anger in check and keeping small things in perspective, I paid the ticket and maturely went on with my life.
Ha-ha. The previous sentence might be true in some alternate universe containing a person exactly like me, except for not being an obsessive jerk. So, no, I did not pay the ticket. Convinced that this was an injustice of a magnitude that could launch a civil rights movement, I decided to fight.
A quick check of city ordinances seemed to allow for retroactive enforcement of emergency signage. But I had just listened to President Obama’s State of the Union speech, in which he said we need to return to the American ideal of “fair play,” where “everyone plays by the same set of rules.” Changing the rules midweek next to a parked car seemed no fairer to me than what hap-pens when the big kid in the schoolyard informs the little kid in the schoolyard that his touchdown didn’t count because a new rule says you can’t score if you have freckles. Do we really have an obligation to visit our car every day, in case a bully has changed the rules on us?
But what do I know? I decided to consult Larry. Larry is a lawyer.
Laurence Tribe, the Harvard professor, has argued 35 times before the U.S. Supreme Court, including Bush v. Gore, which he tragically lost, and Richmond Newspapers v. Virginia, which he won, establishing the media’s right to attend trials. My point is, Larry’s a pretty good lawyer. He taught Barack Obama.
I e-mailed Tribe the details of my “case,” not really expecting an answer, and certainly not the one I got:
“Your Constitutional rights have probably been violated in at least two respects. Article I, Section 9 prohibits ex post facto laws; also, Amendment V provides that no one may be ‘deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.’ Penalizing you for violating a prohibition of which you could not realistically have been aware would violate both of those commands. A government that could retroactively trap people this way is on its way to tyranny, step by tiny step. If we are to prevent that sad ending, we should resist these unlawful beginnings.”
It was settled, then. I could, and would, make a federal case out of it.
It was an emboldened me who sat before a hearing examiner in traffic court. The path was clear: I’d lose at this level but start an appeals process that would wend its way through the federal courts until, sometime in early 2014, the great Laurence Tribe would make his 36th Supreme Court appearance to argue and win the landmark traffic case, Weingarten v. Washington.
Not tipping my hand, I looked placidly at the hearing examiner. He looked at me, then down at the ticket.
“The charge is dismissed,” he said.
B-but . . . .
The cop had identified the location of my car as “front 8th street,” the examiner noted, which is not an understandable designation. It invalidated the ticket.
To his surprise, I protested. I wasn’t contesting where the car was, I said. It was right next to that no parking sign! I swear it!
No dice, he said. There was no longer a case, ergo there was no longer a case to appeal.
Ergo, Weingarten v. Washington will have to wait. I am a patient man. I live in pothole city; more emergency street repairs are just a matter of time.
E-mail Gene at firstname.lastname@example.org.