The Ticket Saga
When a violation is not
Parking ticket is part of life for drivers in the city. But here in Marlboro, a central Jersey town, how often would it occur to you that you might be charged with a parking violation? Well, the unexpected does happen when you are not looking.
Ever since Monmouth Chinese School moved to its current location at Dugan Elementary School some dozen years ago, the enrollment had stayed above two hundred each year. Adding the little league soccer that played nearby during the warmer months, the tiny parking lot of the school was nowhere near adequate to accommodate the large crowds. So logically, many parents chose to park at the curb of the roadway adjacent to the parking lot. With no school buses to worry about on the weekends, the parked cars blocked no one. Occasionally a police patrol car would come by and kick out a few fire lane hogs, and then business went on as usual.
Things changed in a hurry. The date was October 14, 2006, a dreamy autumn day with an endless blue sky caressed by a barely detectable breeze. Someone who apparently held a grudge or had some other agenda had called the police, who somehow decided to bring in what looked like the whole department to conduct an “illegal parking sweep”. Chaos erupted, and the blind-sided parents fought to escape. Those who got caught received a present they didn’t want but could not refuse – a parking ticket!
I happened to be on my way out for an errand, and therefore was able to selfishly congratulate myself for my good luck. The dust seemed to have settled upon my return, and the whole scene looked eerily calm and quiet under the comforting golden sun. Some parents had retreated to the parking lot at the nearby Chai House, a Jewish day school. A few cars remained parked at the curb across from the school building; they appeared to be the victims of today’s raid. Needless to say, all the “legal” parking spots were jam packed. I hesitated a bit, and finally decided to drive up to the small piece of lawn that was extended just beyond the parking lot. A couple of cars were already there anyway, without a single ticket clipped on them.
“School will be out in half an hour. Shouldn’t be a problem.” I figured, taking a chance.
I couldn’t be more wrong. At twelve o’clock, class was dismissed. I started packing up and getting ready to walk out the door when my cell phone rang. The call was from my very anxious sister-in-law: “Hurry, the cops are here writing tickets!” Those hard-working police actually came back for seconds.
“What the…” I cried out loud and made a mad dash to the parking lot, only to see a white-and-blue squad car right at my rear bumper. Inside, a potbellied officer had his head down, his hand writing swiftly. Steaming, all I managed to mutter was a lame sentence: “I was just about to leave.”
“You can go,” the cop smirked, “after your summons.”
At that moment, all sorts of unprintable were bubbling up my throat, but I knew better and swallow them all back down. And of course, I bit my tongue while taking in my beloved wife’s nagging all the way home. Well, it was one of those days…
This stealth raid by the police netted twenty-nine victims for Monmouth Chinese School. And then came the rumor that the police department tipped off other organizations prior to their sweep. The number of people affected, plus the under-handed way of operation by the police, enraged all. A number of parents petitioned the school to help fight for justice on their behalf. The principal and vice principal at the time, Tina Woo and Sui Louie, took charge without hesitation and immediately started collecting the names of those involved, and getting ready to have the issue resolved.
Everyone knows the Engs in the Chinese community in this area. Dr. Raymond Eng, was once a principal of this Chinese school, and has been a member of the township Board of Education for many years; and his wife, Mary, is well respected by the municipal officials and loved by the people in our community for her tireless activism. Now that we had a problem, they were obviously the natural go-to guys.
The sitting mayor of Marlboro at the time, Mr. Kleinberg was friendly towards the Chinese community. As the local elections neared, the mayor, who was campaigning for re-election, planned a visit to our school. Before his appearance, Mary had briefed him on this ticket incident. So at the meeting, I conjured up enough courage to bring up the topic, pointed out the unfair treatment by the police and asked for the mayor’s intervention. The mayor’s response: He was in no position to interfere with police operation, but would communicate with all concerned parties and find a fair solution.
In the meantime, the school instructed all who were charged to call the court directly or return the ticket with a “not guilty” plea.
The collaborated efforts appeared to be working: The $50.00 fine was vacated from the court record, replaced by a requirement for a court appearance on December 13. In addition, the court allowed a representative to appear on behalf of all summonsed Chinese school parents. As the event turned, we started to see a silver lining!
The school approached me to see if I would agree to accompany Principal Woo for the court appearance as a representative. Well, as a law-abiding citizen, I had never needed to show up in court, nor did I have any expertise in law. However, Tina had nothing to do with this case and still stepped up for us; I couldn’t find an excuse to say “no”.
After a busy round of preparation, it was time for court. The sky was grey with gloomy clouds, and freezing rain started to drizzle. Minutes after 8:00 am, Tina and I met up in the front of the municipal building and walked into the court house. Inside, a long line of people snaked around the pews. Sitting behind a desk in front of the judge’s bench was an unkempt heavy-set man, with an over-sized grey suite hanging on his slanted shoulders. Judging from his arrogant demeanor, I had a feeling this was not going be a walk in the park.
At last it was our turn. No sooner had we given our name and introduced our case than the large man barked, “You parked in the space within the white lines?”
“No, but…” Tina and I were taken aback.
“If you were not parked within the white lines, then you are guilty. There’s nothing to talk about!” The big guy was trying to show his authority.
Not going well! But the principal cut to the chase: “Are you the judge?”
“I am the prosecutor. You can plead guilty and pay your fines here, or waste your time waiting for the judge, plus court fees!” The man clearly enjoyed his power, and left no room for negotiation.
What happened? There must be a disconnect here! But we didn’t come here to pay fines; this was not the time to give up. The court proceedings had started, and case by case, the judge was handing down rulings. Time was running short, and it looked like we were actually heading toward a real court battle.
Sitting in the pews, principal Woo seemed unfazed, making phone call after phone call, and sending text after text, as if she were working some kind of magic. In between, Sui showed up to get a handle on how things were going and helped figure out the next step. As minutes ticked by, I was on pins and needles.
A couple of hours went by like a flash, and the judge’s docket was thinning out. I stood at the entrance, gazing out at the lazy drizzle through the glass door, and reckoning what was about to happen. Suddenly, Mayor Kleinberg appeared at the other end of the municipal building, and trotted toward the court house, rain drops collecting on his silver curly hair and sprinkling on his pink dress shirt.
“Here comes the reinforcement!” Cheer erupted in me. I hurried to open the door and let him in. Following a brief handshake and simple pleasantries, the mayor scurried straight over to the prosecutor, bent down and whispered a few words into his ears. The prosecutor nodded as he listened. After a few rounds of back-and-forth, the two men shook hands and patted each other on the shoulder. And just like the way he came in, the mayor rushed through the glass door again and disappeared into the winter chill.
Our case was called at last. The mayor’s visit was a confidence booster; the principal and I could now stand at ease in front of the judge.
“Your Honor,” the prosecutor started his open statement, “the people in this case are charged with illegal parking violations. However, prior to the sweep operation, the police department had issued pre-warnings to certain institutions and organizations, such as the little league soccer, but failed to inform anyone at the Chinese school, which, in my opinion was improper and irregular. Therefore, in fairness, I propose dismissal of all charges, in order to provide an opportunity for all involved to correct their actions.”
“If this is the case,” the judge appeared understanding, “will the defendants guarantee that your members will strictly obey the parking law of the township, and never again commit parking violations in the future?”
“Yes, Your Honor,” the two of us were obviously happy to oblige, “we certainly will!”
“Okay then, dismiss charges for all involved.”
Out of the court, we smiled at each other with a sigh of relief. I later learned the back story: The mayor happened to be out that day at his daughter’s school to handle some business; it was Mary’s phone call, after she received the SOS signal from the Chinese school principals, that urged him to rush to the front line. This final series of scrambling saved the day and enabled us to escape triumphantly without bloodshed.
So justice was served, thanks to the great leadership of principals Woo and Louie, the skillful maneuver by Ms. Mary Eng, and finally, the key home run hit by Mayor Kleinberg.
The ticket saga is now history. But since then, and for the longest time, no matter how much space there was, no one ever dared to park his car on the roadway in front of Dugan again.