Making Federal Case Out of Parking Ticket

By Tom Oat

Ranger Nichols issues a landmark parking ticket last January at Maho Bay beach — in the face of opposition from beachgoers. St. John Tradewinds News Photo File

I realized I had made a federal case out of a parking ticket when the Assistant U.S. Attorney swaggered into Magistrate Judge Geoffrey Barnard’s courtroom with a V.I. National Park tourist map in one hand and a letter from the National Park Service’s solicitor general which asserted the federal government owned the roads in the V.I. National Park in the other.

The Assistant U.S. Attorney was lawyered up to prove the VINP specifically owned the stretch of road along Maho Bay beach where I had been issued a ticket for obstructing traffic while packing a parked vehicle to leave the beach with my family on a Sunday afternoon in January.

Only Ticket Written
Actually Ranger Nichols — my second-favorite nemesis over the years to Ranger Stoner — testified my citation was the only parking ticket he had written in more than six months on St. John. I was momentarily taken aback with concern that my behavior warranted such drastic action, then I wondered why so many other people had been complaining about receiving tickets.

When the young law enforcement ranger took the stand as the prosecution’s only witness, I just wanted to establish that it wasn’t my car and the ranger never asked whose car it was or who had parked it with such blatant disregard for the law.
The Assistant U.S. Attorney, however, wanted to firmly establish the NPS had authority over the roadway in question. The VINP map clearly showed they did, he proclaimed.

For some reason he only brought one copy of the map — and he knows the rules. Fortunately I had seen it before.

Coconut Receivers Escape
My learned line of questioning of the ranger was based on three sets of pictures of the scene, one copy for the prosecution, one for the judge and one for me, the defense.

Unfortunately, I did not have pictures of the restaurant wait-staff party 100 yards away which quickly broke up while Ranger Nichols was being harassed by several women in bathing suits over his selective law enforcement.

While Nichols busied himself with filling several spaces on the ticket with “will not provide” and “refused to sign,” a dozen young people carted away coolers of beer in illegal glass bottles to their illegally parked cars on the curve at the end of the beachfront roadway — followed furtively by several, slinking, scofflaw coconut retrievers.

Fool for Client
After I had established that Ranger Nichols had not asked who owned the vehicle or who had parked it on the roadway, the Assistant U.S. Attorney popped up to say the ticket could be reissued to the vehicle’s owner — my wife, who was one of the women who had questioned Ranger Nichols during the near-riot surrounding his enforcement effort.

Fortunately, my wife was not in the courtroom and escaped persecution.

When it was my turn to present witnesses, I was careful not to testify in my own defense so that I could not be cross-examined by the Assistant U.S. Attorney. As lawyers like to say, anyone who is their own attorney has a fool for a client.

Fool Proof Argument
I was perfectly happy to pick up the Assistant U.S. Attorney’s line of argument on the VINP’s jurisdiction over the roadway, and I felt I was very well prepared.

As a former altar boy and a product of a private school education, I know a lot of Latin, and I spent a lot of time in the courtroom as a rookie reporter in the 1970s, so I already knew a lot of legal terminology before running up more than $500,000 (that is not a typographical error) in attorney fees for my U.S.V.I. legal education in the Falstaffian Judge Barnard’s courtroom from 2002 through 2006 through my involvement in one of the territory’s longest-running and most expensive civil litigations, so I felt I had an edge.

Actually, Barnard more than likely already had formed a pretty odd opinion of me. And I’ll probably be in his courtroom again soon, especially after he reads this.

I called no witnesses and in my closing argument I reminded Judge Barnard of my familiarity with his jurisprudence and some of his recent work in the partition of the Marsh estate, the in-holding which dominates Estate Maho Bay.

I pointed out that the court was well aware of the the proposal by a potential beneficent buyer to turn over some of the property to the park service in exchange for the right to move the North Shore Road inland to allow a private development on the beach.

I was so proud of my closing I can’t remember the Assistant U.S. Attorney’s closing argument, although it must have been something brilliantly irrelevant.

In his Solomonic wisdom, Judge Barnard reserved judgement and the case was concluded.

Waiting for Verdict
Four months later I’m still waiting for a verdict.

Considering a native St. Johnian — who owns a few acres of property adjacent to the VINP himself — was maced by a ranger while taking his evening swim at Maho after having parked illegally on the same roadway, I have to count myself lucky.

He still hasn’t gotten his day in court, either.

At least I didn’t get maced.