Good government run amok: Prohibition of 'for sale' signs in parked cars a case of overreach.

November 27, 1996

THIS ONE COULD EARN Howard County a spot on someone's "wackiest laws" list. A 24-year-old ordinance, recently criticized by a District Court judge, makes it illegal to place a "For Sale" sign on an automobile parked on a county road.

County Executive Charles I. Ecker defends this example of legislative overreach as necessary to keep "our streets from becoming a used car lot" and to prevent the hazard of motorists stopping to look at cars parked along roadways.

Never mind that it is perfectly legal for motorists to have "For Sale" signs taped to a rear window while the vehicle is parked in a driveway or while being operated along public roads. Is that not as much of a distraction?

By Mr. Ecker's sweeping definition, virtually any commercial advertisement -- from big, illuminated chain store logos to real estate signs giving directions to new subdivisions -- should be outlawed since they too could distract motorists. As for Mr. Ecker's concern about aesthetics, Howard's streets, with numerous other sign laws in force, are far from becoming another Ritchie Highway, for example.

The brouhaha that exposed this frivolous law began when Ellicott City resident Philip Marcus received a $24 ticket for parking his car along Patapsco River Road near his home. The vehicle had a "For Sale" sign in the window. Later, Mr. Marcus put a protest sign in the window stating: "Because of a stupid and probably unconstitutional Howard County ordinance, I can't tell you whether this car is FOR SALE." That earned him another $24 citation.

Mr. Marcus viewed the tickets as an opportunity to challenge the 1972 law as a violation of the Constitution. District Judge R. Russell Sadler recently ruled with common sense by declaring the law a free speech violation.

Unfortunately, Judge Sadler's ruling at the District Court level carries no precedential authority and does not repeal the law.

We doubt the county will try to enforce the ordinance again, given its experience with Mr. Marcus. At the very least, the law could be sharpened to disallow an owner from hawking numerous cars at curbside, to dissuade abuse by a commercial dealer as opposed to an individual. But the County Council might do better to erase this measure altogether.

Pub Date: 11/27/96

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