When the punishment doesn't fit the crime

WILEY A. HALL

June 24, 1993|By WILEY A. HALL

I just paid the city $178 in penalties on a $17 parking ticket. I got the ticket in 1991 for not feeding a meter. The penalties are for late payment, $8 a month, plus a fine for putting the city through the trouble of having to "flag" my auto registration to force me to pay.

All in all, I ended up paying $195 -- 11 times the amount of the original fine. Had I not paid when I did, the total bill would have continued to grow, accruing without limit. And, at the end of this month, the state would have refused to renew my car registration -- impounding my property, in effect.

And I have no excuses to offer. The original $17 fine wasn't that steep, and I cannot claim that I was unaware of the penalties for not paying the ticket promptly.

So, it was my fault entirely. My responsibility. And I know what you're thinking: Not paying makes me a world-class chump, a fool, flamboyantly irresponsible. It's the sort of thing that used to drive my ex-wife ballistic.

But now that I have admitted my own fault in this sad affair, what about the government's position?

Doesn't the city have a moral responsibility to be rational and fair, a responsibility to impose penalties that are proportional to the offense? Does the government have carte blanche to punish -- without limit -- every person who makes a mistake?

This is not about the parking ticket, you see, but about a general philosophy of government.

I put these questions to a handful of elected officials, government employees and private citizens yesterday.

And the answers I received disturbed me. There was an almost universal tendency to dismiss the whole issue of parking tickets and fines as trivial, though most people eventually acknowledged that $195 is not a trivial amount.

Then, after we talked about the issue, most people agreed that government should limit the penalties; or, failing that, try to distinguish between scofflaws and citizens with limited means. But the concern was abstract -- as if the workings of government were somebody else's problem.

"Honey," said a woman in the city's Parking Fines division, "you're one of the lucky ones. We've had people in here owing hundreds of dollars. We've had people who were talking about junking their cars."

"So, what did you do for them?" I asked.

"Nothing," said the woman, looking amused. "They either paid or they didn't pay."

"Personally, I think the fines themselves are too high," said a parking-control agent working downtown. "You take a $27 ticket and that's like a day's pay for a lot of people. I know when I've gotten a ticket it just about wipes me out."

"Knowing that," I said, "would you ever consider giving somebody a break, if they asked?"

"I can't," said the agent, "it's against the rules."

I asked City Council President Mary Pat Clarke if she thought unlimited penalties on parking tickets seemed fair.

"Nobody's ever brought this up before," she answered. "But you're right. It probably is a wise idea to look at an ultimate liability for each individual parking ticket."

Stuart Comstock-Gay, executive director of Maryland's American Civil Liberties Union, had this to say: "In a broader context, there is a general tendency on the part of government to get ahead of itself -- to create penalties that are either irrelevant or excessive when compared to the crime.

"For instance, the kind of penalties we are seeing in the drug war are way out of line and they are tearing us apart. They are making the streets unsafe, the jails overcrowded, and are having absolutely no effect on the drug trade. It is an irresponsible way for government to behave. But, with regard to your parking ticket, was that excessive? I don't know. It certainly would be if I had to pay it."

Mr. Comstock-Gay said that when civil penalties become excessive, citizens go away mad, saying, "I hate government."

"That probably isn't a good idea if it can be avoided with a little common sense," he said.

That's my point exactly. It isn't the ticket or the penalties, it is the principle of the thing. I'm mad, and nobody cares.

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