Doug Moe: Stuart Levitan and the case of the $30 parking ticket

2010-07-07T03:00:00Z 2011-11-09T19:41:32Z Doug Moe: Stuart Levitan and the case of the $30 parking ticketBy DOUG MOE | dmoe@madison.com | 608-252-6446 madison.com

As the defendant entered the courtroom Tuesday morning, a bailiff recognized him and said, in jest, "What kind of weapons are you carrying?"

"Only the truth," Stuart Levitan replied.

It turned out the defendant in the city of Madison v. Stuart Levitan was also armed with the knowledge of how the classic folk tale "Cinderella" could be recast as a morality play involving parking meters and parallel lines painted on Langdon Street.

But that comes later. When I first met the defendant Tuesday, it was a half hour before trial. He was sipping iced coffee in the Capitol Square Starbucks and talking about his necktie.

"UW Law School," he said, fingering the impressive looking red tie. "It doesn't get out of the house much."

Tuesday was a special occasion. Levitan, a mainstay in local government and media circles for 35 years — and author of "Madison: The Illustrated Sesquicentennial History" — was appearing in Madison Municipal Court, contesting a parking violation the city alleged he committed on April 8.

Levitan drove his car to the Memorial Union a little after 6 p.m. that night. Knowing, he said, that the parking meters on Langdon Street are not enforced after 6 p.m., Levitan parallel parked on Langdon across the street from the Union.

His car crossed the parallel lines marking the separate parking spaces. In fact, because the spaces in question are designated for motorcycles — as posted on the meters — there was no way his car could have fit in between the lines. But Levitan — a motorcyclist himself — recalled that in 2007, a parking enforcement officer had told him specifically that on Langdon, once the meters aren't enforced, neither are the parallel lines.

On April 8, Levitan came out of the Union around 8 p.m. and found a $30 ticket under his windshield. He was cited under Wisconsin Statute 346.54(1)(d), "How to park and stop on streets."

In the days before trial, the city had offered to settle the ticket for $15, but Levitan declined. If he lost at trial, he could be charged court costs in addition to the ticket.

"But how do you put a price on justice?" he said.

Levitan arrived at court about five minutes before his 11 a.m. trial. A woman entered the courtroom a moment later. She was Maureen O'Brien, an assistant city attorney.

"You still want to go to trial?" she said.

"Yes," Levitan said. "Actually, no. I want you to dismiss it. If not, I want to go to trial."

"Settle for $15," O'Brien said.

"No," Levitan said.

As they waited for the judge, Levitan leafed through some papers, including a script of his closing argument. He was humming "America the Beautiful."

He looked up from the papers and said quietly, "Maybe I should say, 'Judge, if you uphold this ticket, the terrorists win.'"

Judge Daniel Koval entered the courtroom and sat down.

Earlier, Levitan had mused, "Do you think it will matter that Judge Koval and I are both Rotarians?"

Koval called the case. Levitan testified, and so did the parking enforcement officer who wrote the ticket. There was a bit of confusion over whether Levitan had been cited for being in a space meant for motorcycles or simply because his car was parked across the parallel space lines. In the end Levitan argued that it was a moot point; what mattered was that once the meters were not being enforced, the lines shouldn't be either.

In his closing argument he played the "Cinderella" card.

"At 6 p.m. on April 8," Levitan said, "the parking meter at 800 Langdon St. became inactive. And so did the parallel stall lines. Like Cinderella's coach at the stroke of midnight, they transmogrified into a lesser state. Not as a pumpkin, but as something so devoid of purpose and meaning they ceased to exist."

A moment later, Levitan added, "I realize this is a pretty existential argument, and I don't want to get all metaphysical on you, judge, but it seems to me it's also just common sense."

In the end, Koval bought Levitan's argument, metaphysics and all. "It sounds reasonable," he said. "I'm going to find the defendant not guilty."

Out in the hall, O'Brien congratulated Levitan. What I'll remember is the look on Koval's face when the defendant mentioned Cinderella.

It was like he realized that into every judge's life, a little Stuart Levitan must fall.

Contact Doug Moe at 608-252-6446 or dmoe@madison.com. His column appears Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday.

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