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Brookline TAB
Brookline, Massachusetts

Police Discretion Worsens Parking-Limit Unfairness

Dennis Fox

April 8, 2004

What struck me most during February's Transportation Board meeting was not the board members' failure to modify Brookline's two-hour parking rule. It wasn't the knowledge that no change will please everyone. It wasn't even my chagrin that I had wrongly predicted the board would do something, albeit minimal, about this deceptively trivial problem.

What I noticed instead were the persistent objections by David Friend, Brookline's Assistant Director for Transportation, and Captain Peter Scott, the Police Department's head traffic cop and liaison to the board. Seeking to dampen the board's growing acknowledgment that its rule creates preventable hardship, the two town employees insisted police discretion can fix any rule-related problems.

Friend and Scott were trying to counter progressive lawyer Marty Rosenthal's increasingly persuasive campaign to change the rule. The former town Selectman's ire was raised when last year's escalating enforcement antagonized residents who think they should be able to park in front of their own houses. Rosenthal maintains police shouldn't harass people for doing something most don't consider wrong.

Although he agrees some overloaded neighborhoods might need parking limits, Rosenthal says applying the rule townwide leads to silliness. It's illegal, for example, to park for two hours in front of your home, drive off to do errands, and then return hours later to park anywhere on the same street even for a moment, even if the street is empty.

Some outcomes surpass silly. Because residents who rent overnight-only spots have no legal daytime spot, those who are ill, asleep after a night job, or home with young, sick, or reckless children must move their cars every two hours. So must visiting babysitters, health aides, and other helpers. So must plumbers, carpenters, and electricians. Rosenthal's right: These drivers are not criminals.

Following a public hearing last spring, most Transportation Board members by December seemed persuaded. At February's meeting, thus, co-chair Michael Sandman expressed surprise that the Department of Public Works requested "no changes be made to the existing Transportation Board regulation."

The DPW's Friend said proposed modifications are impractical and hardships can be dealt with informally -- for example, by letting contractors park all day (though I could find nothing on the Transportation Department website allowing exceptions). Captain Scott agreed. He thought one proposal -- increasing the limit to three hours -- would complicate police shift changes. Besides, he said, "Discretion is a good thing. Appeals work."

It is true that no law is enforced completely. Ideally, police and prosecutors, judges and juries, and bureaucrats and clerks take into account individual circumstances and common sense to humanize law's inherent overreach. But discretion only works when the underlying law is reasonable and decision-makers don't succumb to personal or institutional bias. When the law is unjust or enforcement is arbitrary, discriminatory, or otherwise unfair, exempting only sympathetic or knowledgeable petitioners mocks both those penalized for violating the law and those who follow it.

Parking enforcement is inconsistent for many reasons -- complaints about too much or not enough ticketing, changing elite expectations, the lure of parking-fine revenue, the false belief that "everyone knows" exemptions are possible, and individual officer mood and judgment. Police routinely ticket some streets, rarely others. Informing them of a special need sometimes elicits all-day permission, sometimes not. Appealing a ticket voids it sometimes, but not always.

Toward meeting's end, one resident complained that after moving to Brookline three years ago she rented an overnight parking spot and drove daily to work in Watertown. When that job ended she started commuting by subway to work downtown, leaving her car on the street accumulating tickets because she could not find 24-hour parking. She thinks that's unreasonable.

Co-chair Sandman, agreeing, said the rule should be modified, but Friend insisted a case-by-case approach suffices. This resident, after all, is "not to blame," so Captain Scott will either tell police not to ticket her or ask the hearing officer to void any fines. Scott nodded.

Both Sandman and his obviously distressed co-chair, Fred Levitan, recoiled. They seem to realize institutional problems need institutional solutions, not hit-or-miss individual favors. Lacking consensus, however, they tabled discussion. Next time, they should tell Friend and Scott to help craft a workable alternative rather than continue to stand in the way.

Note: this version may differ from the published version.

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