Baltimore City parking control agent Tiffany Chambers issues… (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore…)
The parking agents are back in parking court.
Well, at least one of them was, on Wednesday morning at the John R. Hargrove District Court building on Patapsco Avenue in South Baltimore.
Just one reputed miscreant, out of more than 70 people in court that day, requested the presence of the person who wrote the ticket.
And unlike previous weeks — in which parking agents were daily no-shows in court because they never received their summons, prompting judges to dismiss hundreds of cases — an officer identified only as Agent Farmer showed up to testify.
At last, after sitting through several days of parking complaints, I could finally watch a courtroom battle. Alleged parking scofflaw versus the mighty state of Maryland.
And who presided? The wife of the governor, of course.
It turned out, at least in this case, that it didn't matter much whether Agent Farmer came or not. And it appears that District Judge Catherine Curran O'Malley does not share her husband's zero-tolerance approach to law enforcement, at least when law enforcement is a traffic citation.
Parking court is a relaxed atmosphere where most everybody is guilty of parking someplace they shouldn't have, and most everybody comes armed with an excuse and the hope that the excuse is plausible enough to shave a few dollars off the fine.
There's even a term for it: guilty with an explanation (if only kids could do that with their parents). And O'Malley told those poised to do battle that those who plead guilty with an explanation are likely to leave her courtroom with a smile.
"I tend to reduce fines dramatically," she said.
Derrick Shaw chose to chance a not-guilty plea on his ticket, which alleged he had failed to put money into a parking meter. Had his hearing been just a couple of weeks ago, chances are Farmer wouldn't have known to show up, and Shaw would have walked out with an easy victory.
But Farmer did show up, and Shaw was ready for a fight.
He walked away with an easy victory.
Shaw said he parked, put money into the meter but didn't get a receipt to put on his dash. He said he called the number listed on the meter to file a complaint but got nowhere. He left and returned to find a ticket.
"I can see how that could happen," O'Malley said of the parking machine failure.
Result: not guilty.
And so went a morning docket that marked the return of parking agents for the first time since problems with the summonses surfaced in early December. Officials say the problem has been resolved, though they can't agree on how it became a problem in the first place.
The state blamed the city; the city blamed the state. The administrative judge blamed a new city computer program that was supposed to make delivery of summonses more efficient, but failed to distribute any at all.
Everyone told me to watch parking court starting in January. The first session after the holiday was Jan. 3, with O'Malley on the bench. I walked in and saw a familiar sight — the front bench, reserved for parking agents, was empty.
"None of the officers have been summoned," O'Malley said.
A clerk called the first suspected miscreant.
No answer. The man had failed to appear.
A clerk called the second.
He stood up and approached the bench. He had checked off the box requesting to confront his accuser, but the agent was a no-show. "You are free to go," O'Malley told him. "A not-guilty is entered."
Here we go again, I thought.
But that person, as in Wednesday's hearing, was the only person to request the parking agent show. When she didn't, O'Malley had no choice but to dismiss the case. The suspect has a right to face his accuser.
The rest weren't so lucky. They had not checked the box requesting the agent's presence in court. A few pleaded not guilty and presented a case. The others pleaded guilty with an explanation and threw themselves on the mercy of Maryland's first lady.
•One poor man received summonses to appear in courthouses on Patapsco Avenue and on Wabash Avenue at the same time on the same day.
O'Malley: Not guilty.
•A man had taken his elderly mother out to dinner and parked in a handicapped space. His mother's handicapped placard fell off the dash. He brought his mother, barely able to walk and dragging an oxygen tank, to court to prove his case.
O'Malley: Not guilty.
•A city worker had parked in front of the downtown courthouse to deliver a victim of a shooting who was to testify at a trial.
O'Malley polled the gallery on this one. "What do you think, not guilty everybody?" she asked. She agreed with the unanimous decision — not guilty. Authorities have enough problems getting victims and witnesses to court without having to worry that their drivers are racking up parking fines.