Scalping law's absurdity highlighted

This Just In...

October 27, 1999|By Dan Rodricks

JAMES CASEY, the Laurel horse doctor whose arrest on ticket scalping charges at the Kentucky Derby led to a two-alarm political scandal in the Bluegrass State, has won a legal victory in the big, misguided war against ticket scalpers.

On Monday, a Kentucky judge dismissed the charge against Casey, agreeing with a defense argument that police had no right to arrest him for such a minor offense. In Kentucky, scalping is called a violation -- kind of like a speeding ticket or littering -- and it's less serious than a misdemeanor. The maximum penalty for scalping is a $250 fine. Casey's attorney, Frank Mascagni, argued that Kentucky law prohibits police from arresting someone for a violation, with six exceptions. Scalping isn't one of them. The judge agreed and dismissed the charge.

This all started on the first Saturday in May.

Casey, at Churchill Downs for the big race, paid a scalper $100 each for three $42 Derby tickets. (Casey needed only two tickets, but the scalper insisted he take all three.) Casey was trying to resell the third ticket when a plainclothes police officer stopped him at Churchill Downs, asked him how much he wanted for the ticket, then arrested him. Casey was handcuffed, placed in a chain-link cage at the racetrack, then moved to a vomit-and-urine-stained jail cell with 10 other prisoners, one of whom groped him several times. He spent 13 hours in jail for a violation that doesn't even carry jail as a penalty.

Angry about his treatment, Casey decided to fight the scalping charge instead of paying the fine and getting on with his life. He complained to Churchill Downs. He hired Louisville lawyers, Mascagni and Paul Gold.

The fun really started when the lawyers discovered that the tickets Casey got from the unidentified scalper were among 553 Derby ducats issued to Kentucky Gov. Paul Patton by Churchill Downs. The Louisville Courier-Journal reported that the governor sold the hard-to-get tickets at face value to political allies. That revelation has led to a state ethics commission inquiry because Churchill Downs is a registered lobbyist seeking state approval for electronic slot machines.

Casey, a horse trainer and veterinarian, returned home from Louisville yesterday afternoon, and he's not sure he'll be going back. His pilgrimage to the derby had become an annual tradition, but he's still upset at his experience this year.

Meanwhile, the judge's ruling in Casey's case has been criticized in Kentucky. "Scalping's still illegal," said Jefferson County assistant attorney Scott Roby.

But Mascagni says the Casey episode points to the absurdity of scalping laws.

"The history of this thing, they say, is years ago they put it on the books to stop the scalping of tickets to University of Kentucky basketball games," he said. At the time, Mascagni said, legislators apparently wanted to help country folks of modest means who couldn't afford to pay jacked-up scalper prices for the limited seats at UK games in Lexington.

An admirable intention, in its time.

But the reason for scalping laws has become muddled, if not lost, in the age of high-priced sports entertainment. The owners of professional sports franchises want police to help them maintain total control of the pricing and sale of tickets. The way I see it, people who can afford tickets to elite events -- people who even consider going to elite events -- can probably afford to pay the scalper's price, if they have to. The idea that the laws are there to help The Little Guy is laughable.

And why are tickets to elite events protected by law anyway? In most of this vast capitalist country of ours, selling anything for more than you paid for it is considered an achievement, not a violation.

It didn't sound from my chat with him yesterday that Jim Casey was planning on suing anyone in Kentucky, but it must be awful tempting.

Appointing a mayoral rival

If elected mayor next week, Martin O'Malley will be expected to shake City Hall out of its 12-year snore. He'll have to make some dramatic personnel changes and recruit some energetic people with fresh ideas. He's under no obligation to give a job to Carl Stokes, a former city councilman and O'Malley's top rival in the September primary, but it's not a bad idea. Even people who supported O'Malley said so on election night.

Stokes, who campaigned with sincere, native-son commitment to the future of the city, scored a lot of points with a gracious concession speech: "[Baltimore voters] have proven time and time again that they are very fair. I'm very proud of the African-American community."

Stokes has a lot to offer, and his appointment to a post in an O'Malley administration would probably go a long way toward establishing a credible, biracial power structure in the new City Hall. The night of his primary victory, O'Malley told reporters he hoped to discuss ideas with his campaign rivals. "I'll work with anybody who is willing to roll up their sleeves," O'Malley said. Presumably, that meant Carl Stokes.

But that hasn't happened. There hasn't been a Stokes-O'Malley meeting yet.

Maybe O'Malley didn't like some of the stuff Stokes tried in the final days of the primary campaign -- he invoked Rodney King in an 11th-hour attack on zero-tolerance policing -- but Brother Martin should get over it.

Stokes doesn't have to be police commissioner.

He cares most about education and neighborhoods. O'Malley wants to get banks to invest millions in redeveloping Baltimore neighborhoods through more vigorous enforcement of the Community Reinvestment Act, the federal law prohibiting discrimination in lending. Sounds like a perfect fit for Stokes.

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