For-sale sign case is won in court Judge says law on cars parked along roads is unconstitutional

November 22, 1996|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

Using the power of the Constitution and his gift of gab, Ellicott City software designer Philip Marcus proved yesterday you can beat city hall -- or at least Howard County traffic regulations.

Marcus, a former lawyer, successfully argued in District Court that a county ordinance prohibiting residents from parking their cars with for-sale signs along public roads restricted his First Amendment right to free speech. He also got out of $48 in parking tickets.

District Judge R. Russell Sadler said he "reluctantly" deemed Howard's unusual ordinance unconstitutional, despite county officials' contentions that such signs present safety hazards.

But Howard residents shouldn't prop for-sale signs in car windows just yet. The law is still in place, and county officials don't seem eager to change it -- even in the name of the founding fathers.

"We have to sit down and talk about what we are going to do," said County Executive Charles I. Ecker. "We don't want our streets becoming a used-car lot. We think the streets ought to be used for travel."

The county could appeal the court's decision to dismiss the case against Marcus, change the ordinance or do nothing at all, Ecker said.

He cited the possible safety hazard caused by people who stop to look at cars parked along roadways. And he said, "It doesn't add to the beauty of the neighborhood, that's for sure."

Because the ruling came from the lowest level of the state court system, the county is not obliged to strike down the ordinance.

Only a federal court in Maryland or the Supreme Court can force county officials to drop the law from its books, said Assistant County Solicitor F. Todd Taylor.

But the ruling may grant others who have received tickets under the ordinance a shot at getting their fines wiped out as well.

Other judges can refer to the case in considering their own decisions but -- like the county -- are not bound by it.

In light of the ruling, Taylor said he worries used-car lots may try to expand by moving cars onto the roadsides.

"That's the worst possible scenario," he said.

The county could argue that such an encroachment is against zoning regulations, but most zoning boundaries stop before they reach the road, he said.

Meanwhile, Marcus said he intends to continue his fight.

He wants the County Council to repeal the ordinance. The rule, he said, is paternalistic and serves mainly aesthetic purposes. Howard County is, after all, a county that sometimes seems so perfectly trimmed that decorator and television personality Martha Stewart could fall in love with it.

And if the county appeals the court's decision, Marcus said he will take his battle as far as the Supreme Court -- if he can afford it.

"The price of justice is not free," Marcus said. But, so far, hours of research and preparation fighting the two $24 tickets have been worth it, he said.

"If you consider only the economics it doesn't balance out," said Marcus, who holds a master's degree in electrical engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was an attorney from 1973 to 1985. "What is the economic value of freedom though?"

Marcus' troubles with the law began in April, when he received a ticket for parking his 1993 four-door Nissan Sentra along Patapsco River Road near his home in the River Mills subdivision.

A for-sale sign was in the window.

After receiving the ticket, Marcus posted a protest sign in the window of the car that read in small letters, "Because of a stupid and probably unconstitutional Howard County ordinance, I can't tell you whether this car is" and finished in large letters with the words "FOR SALE."

The sign got him a second ticket from police and a chuckle from the county attorney and the judge when Marcus cited Benjamin Franklin and Thurgood Marshall in arguing for the case to be dismissed.

In contrast to his action on the first ticket, Sadler dismissed the second yesterday without invoking any constitutional issues.

The judge ruled that, because the car was parked so close to Marcus' house and Marcus does not have a driveway, the car likely would have been parked there anyway.

The county ordinance states that cars can't be parked on public roads for the purpose of selling them.

Sadler's ruling on the constitutionality of the first ticket relied principally on a 1978 federal court opinion in California.

A Berkeley man had been found guilty of essentially the same offense of which Marcus was accused.

The court ruled that the government must have a pressing reason to restrict free speech.

"Barring all vehicles upon which there are 'For Sale' signs is a meat-cleaver approach where a scalpel is needed," Sadler said, reading from the federal opinion.

Taylor said he found it amusing that Sadler had chosen a California case to make his ruling, given that state's reputation.

"California has a reputation for being a bowl of cereal," Taylor said. "You know, fruits and nuts."

After months of such wrangling and high-brow arguments, the ** mood outside court yesterday was hardly antagonistic.

Taylor and Marcus shook hands as Taylor, deadpan, asked Marcus if he would be offering other cars for sale.

"I don't want to sell any more cars," Marcus said.

Pub Date: 11/22/96

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