Plea Deal Heads Off Great Debate Over Selling Forged Parking Pass


April 22, 2009|By PETER HERMANN

The problem with plea bargains is not always that the guilty get breaks but that the best lawyerly arguments stay forever muffled.

I was prepared Monday for one of those great debates, in the most unlikely of places: the halls of justice at the John R. Hargrove Sr. District Court building on Patapsco Avenue in Brooklyn.

But the prosecutor and the big-name defense attorney made a deal, no matter that they disagreed completely on who would have prevailed at trial.

That's how the case of Nicholas Foster, who became an object of vitriol when he was charged with forging a coveted parking pass for the car-clogged streets of South Baltimore's Otterbein and trying to sell it on Craigslist, ended with a perfunctory nod from Judge Charles A. Chiapparelli and both sides claiming victory.

Foster agreed to perform 100 hours of community service picking up trash and to forfeit his right to a parking pass in Otterbein for one year (which might be considered cruel and unusual punishment, but that's an issue for appeal).

In exchange, Assistant State's Attorney Lauren Polk agreed to drop the charge and wipe the arrest from his record in 90 days.

The state gets to send a message to others that forging passes isn't OK, and the defense gets to keep a client out of jail. It's a deal Foster's attorney, Andrew C. White, told me he had to accept - his job is to keep Foster's record clean, even at the expense of his dignity.

"This allows him to give back to the community and not face any criminal charges," White said.

But a real court case would have been so much more fun - White came armed with the 1,572-page Maryland Criminal Laws Annotated - and promised a master class on how lawyers parse words such as token and ticket and argue over the construction of seemingly antiquated sentences (White helped the Independent Counsel with the Monica Lewinsky case, so he knows all about parsing).

Prosecutors charged Foster with violating Section 8-612 of the criminal code - "Counterfeiting and issuing of tokens," page 724 if you're interested in doing the parsing yourself.

I can't understand how any anybody could misinterpret this:

"In this section, 'token' means a ticket, coupon, coin, disc, slug, or any other thing that is evidence of the right of an individual to enter, drive, ride on, or pass through or over anything or place for which a fee is charged. ..."

(There's still no period in sight, but I thought I'd let you digest that before moving on.)

"... including a building, ground, public conveyance, vessel or bridge and is intended to or designed to be inserted into a box or machine for the collection of fees or given to a collector."

To White, named a "super lawyer" in Baltimore Magazine, prosecutors "picked a statute that doesn't fit." A parking pass cannot under this language be considered a token, nor is anything inserted in a box, and there's never anyone around to collect the proceeds.

But Polk, the prosecutor, told me that her reading of the law is that a token is a ticket, and a parking pass "is a ticket as defined in the statute." The streets covered by the permit can be considered the "ground" or "public conveyance," and the Parking Authority would be the "collector."

Too bad the lawyers robbed Judge Chiapparelli of a chance to rule on this pressing matter. Common sense tells us you shouldn't forge parking permits and sell them on the Internet and that doing so should be illegal.

It would be nice if the law actually said that.

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