Fighting City Hall
Last month my car was towed from a Hollywood street and placed in impound, where I was forced to pay a $177 ransom to liberate it. The car was found by an enterprising (and rather imaginative) traffic officer to be illegally parked, allegedly blocking a residential driveway. Based on the officer’s curious powers of observation — the citation noted that my silver car was “tan” — the City had probable cause to drag away my vehicle.
The only problem with this moment of civic improvement was that my car was parked legally.
Normally, one would throw up his hands, utter a choice expletive or two, and chalk up the experience as a tough break. We’ve all been victimized by injustice of varying degrees, and the only solace available is the abiding understanding that life isn’t fair. But rather than being consigned to brood on my bad luck after-the fact, I was the recipient of great good fortune: I had advance warning of my calamity.
When I parked at 2025 N. Ivar Avenue, a shrewish and (it must be duly noted) rather ugly woman emerged from the house followed by her fat husband. They informed me — well, actually, it was more of a screaming lecture — that I couldn’t park where I was parked because my car was blocking their driveway. I attempted to show them that, in fact, my rear bumper was inside the curbing or “apron” that flanked their egress. But instead of looking, the miserable woman turned her back and announced that she was calling the City to tow me away — and that mine would be the 5th vehicle she had successfully confiscated that week. Assuming she would make good on her threat, I took several photographs with a digital camera (on hand for an evening at the Hollywood Bowl), creating incontrovertible evidence of my innocence should anyone make the mistake of taking the property owner at her word. I promised the ugly woman and the fat man that should they instigate a tow, I would use the photographs in small claims court, and they would end up paying the bill.
I was angry, but I felt a sense of calm, because I knew that once I went through the proper channel(s), justice would be done. After all, I had proof. And it was the kind of proof that required interpretation or expert analysis. Anyone with properly functioning eyes could see that my car wasn’t blocking the driveway.
On the other hand, people have been saying for years that you can’t fight City Hall, or words to that effect. The implication is that when you’re dealing with institutions of power, little concepts like Truth and Fairness become irrelevant. Right and wrong don’t matter. The City does what it wants — until an institution with greater power (like the State) tells it to stop. Silly me. I refused to accept such cynical notions. I filled out the form requesting a hearing before a City Examiner, who, I was certain, would take one look at my photos and rectify the obvious errors.
At my hearing, which the officer didn’t attend, I gave the examiner my photos and told him what had happened. The adjudicator’s name was James Carlin. Despite a case of premature male pattern baldness, he looked to be in his 30s, doing his best to retain some dignity in a job that many people would regard as humiliating. Being a poorly remunerated paper-shuffler would be OK, except that the majority of people (who aren’t as naive as I am), view people like James Carlin as flunkies, as impotent stooges who do the bidding of the institution that pays for their Propecia prescription. I withheld judgment.
Carlin conducted the hearing with a straight face, as though he hadn’t already been given instructions to dismiss all complaints. He even asked that I fax to him the original of one of the copied documents I had brought. What cheered me most was when I handed him the photos, the incontrovertible evidence of my innocence. He nodded soberly and hummed thoughtfully. Professional decorum required that he not blurt out, “Wow, sorry to have wasted your time.” But I knew what he was thinking.
Four weeks later Mr. Carlin’s decision arrived in the mail. He found that the City had probable cause to tow my car because, using language that George Orwell would admire, even though he acknowledged my car was not actually blocking the driveway in the usual sense it was doing so in a previously unimagined sense. Explaining this physical paradox required linguistic acrobatics between Merriam-Webster’s dictionary and the California Vehicle Code. But somehow Carlin managed it. And another case against the City had been properly dispatched.
His finding included a postscript that said I could file an additional appeal with the City Clerk should I find his decision disagreeable. For a moment I thought about it, marching downtown once again with my stack of photos and my aggrieved concept of justice.
But then I got smart: The truth really doesn’t matter in these situations. Everyone is merely acting out his minor role in a large charade. You can’t fight City Hall. And that, I’m sad to say, is a terribly depressing realization for those of us who previously put stock in antiquated notions like due process and the rule of law.