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Big Wheel Keeps on Burning 

Legendary litigator Eugene Pincham takes the city to court--this time as a parking violator with a beef against permit-parking zones.

By Ben Joravsky

For the last 21 months Eugene Pincham's been waging a war most exasperated motorists dream about.

The retired Illinois appellate judge not only has contested a ticket he got for parking in a residents-only parking zone, he's gone to court to have the city's residents-only parking ordinance ruled unconstitutional.

If Pincham wins--and he's a well-regarded trial lawyer with a gift for courtroom oratory--the city will lose much more than a $25 parking ticket. "If I win, they have lost their parking law," says Pincham. "They ticketed the wrong man."

The ticket in question was issued on September 28, 1997, when Pincham was attending a service at the Trinity United Church of Christ, at 94th and Eggleston. The church, one of the south side's most popular, draws as many as 12,000 people to its three Sunday services. As a result, there's usually a great demand for parking on Eggleston.

There's one problem: Eggleston's got zoned parking. The street was zoned years ago at the request of home owners who'd petitioned the city. But Pincham thinks it's immoral to ticket motorists while they sit in church, and he's not afraid to say so. He has, he says, never shied from challenging authority. It's a rebelliousness he learned while growing up in Limestone County, Alabama, where he was schooled by northern missionaries who believed blacks should openly defy the laws of segregation.

Indeed, Pincham made his objections known to the cop who ticketed his car. "I verbally questioned him about the ticket," says Pincham. "I told him that you could be more profitably utilizing your time that taxpayers are paying for by policing the streets against burglaries, robberies, drug peddling, murders, and what have you. I asked him if he really believed that it was in the best interests of the community to utilize his time as a law-enforcement officer by writing parking tickets on the cars of people who are in church. I told him that I'd been all over the country and I've never seen people ticketed for parking in order to worship their god. He said it was the law. And I told him that the law expects you to use good judgment in its enforcement and good judgment is not to harass people on Sunday."

Despite his oratory (or possibly because of it), the ticket stood. "I decided to challenge the ticket," Pincham says. "As I said, I found it offensive to be ticketed for attending church. But also it is a bizarre ordinance. On the west side of Eggleston the signs say residential-permit parking. But on the east side of the street, where the church is located, the signs say no parking, tow zone on Sundays. Now think about this. On the east side you cannot park on Sundays, and on the west side you cannot park at any time without a permit. Why would you have different parking restrictions on the opposite sides of the same street? That doesn't make sense."

His case was first heard at the city's traffic ticket courthouse on Cottage Grove. The hearing officer told Pincham to pay the fine. Pincham refused. Instead he filed a countercomplaint, in effect suing the city on grounds that the parking ban on Eggleston was a symbolically offensive, arbitrarily enforced, illogically conceived, unconstitutional absurdity.

For the last year Pincham and city lawyers have exchanged briefs, claims, and counterclaims--the court file's over one foot thick--on the pros and cons of the matter. Pincham says he's spent several hundred dollars on court costs and copying fees. City officials say they don't know how much they have spent on the case. Neither side shows any sign of backing down.

"There's a major constitutional issue here--the city's taking public property and reserving it for private use," says Pincham. "Now, I'm not an extremist on this matter. I can see that in some cases there would be a valid reason for such an ordinance. I can see, for instance, where people living a block from Wrigley Field would object to people coming from out of the community to see a ball game and taking up their parking spaces. There are many apartment buildings around Wrigley Field that do not have garage parking. If residents cannot park on the street, they cannot park at all. There is a rational reason for making restrictions around Wrigley Field, so that the people who live there have peace and tranquility on their streets.

"But that is not the case on South Eggleston. There are only 17 single-family houses on the block--I know because I counted them. Every one of these houses has a garage. The people on that block have no need for residential-only parking. On Sunday they can park in their garages. Moreover, the people who come to the church are not outsiders, like the people who come to Wrigley Field. We own the church. Thus you cannot justify precluding us from parking on that street."

The city contends that Pincham's claims are beside the point, for the courts have traditionally allowed municipalities to enact whatever parking laws they want. Furthermore, the City Council was neither arbitrary nor capricious, adopting the Eggleston parking prohibition only after conducting a thorough traffic study.

"The power of state and local governments to regulate where and when vehicles can park is extremely well established--the leading case in Illinois is Triple A Services Inc. v. Rice, which upheld a ban on all parking in a hospital district," says Larry Rosenthal, deputy corporation counsel. "The courts are quite clear. Any reasonable regulation will be upheld. The permit-parking ordinances are very carefully considered. They are subjected to public hearings and traffic-engineering studies and only then are they enacted."

On May 13 Pincham finally got his day in court, appearing before circuit judge Albert Green. "I told the judge that there is no debate that the City Council has the authority to pass laws regulating traffic and parking," says Pincham. "But this particular [ban on Eggleston] does neither. Instead, it confers a special privilege to a special group. What's next? Are we going to pass an ordinance that says people driving white cars can park but people driving black cars cannot? Yes, the city has the right, indeed the responsibility, to enforce parking laws. But they must be wise and judicious in their enforcement, otherwise they're being arbitrary and absurd."

Judge Green didn't buy it, ruling in favor of the city on the grounds that "the city may regulate the parking within its boundaries if the public interest requires it and it is reasonably related to the city's goals concerning restricted parking."

Pincham says the judge avoided the central issue in his case. "The judge did not say the law was or was not discriminatory. The judge did not say it was or was not reasonable. He said the City Council has the right to do what they want to do. The city says they conducted a traffic study, but when I asked to see it they did not provide it. As far as I know there was no traffic study at all. So how can they say this was a reasonable application of their power? I told Judge Green, 'Judge, there was a time when judges said slavery was legal. But that did not make it right. That did not make it just!'"

And so the battle continues. Pincham says he will appeal. Rosenthal says the city will not back down. Alderman Leonard Deville of the 21st Ward has ignored Pincham's requests that he mediate a compromise between the church and Eggleston Avenue residents. "Deville will not even return my phone calls," says Pincham. Deville did not respond to comment.

It doesn't seem to matter to the city that by not simply dismissing the ticket it's running a big risk, not to mention spending a lot of time and money. If Pincham wins, the city loses its ability to enforce the residents-only parking ban. "I cannot understand their logic," says Pincham. "If I win, they have lost their law. They are staking a lot on a $25 ticket."

Coincidentally, the case on which the city bases its argument ended in a state supreme court ruling that overturned a decision Pincham wrote in 1988. In that case, two mobile vending companies challenged a city ban against food vendors in the near-west-side medical district. Pincham ruled in favor of the vendors, writing that the city's power "to regulate and prohibit the use of its streets for private gain is unquestioned [but] the evidence presented [proved] that the ordinance constitutes arbitrary, capricious, and unreasonable municipal action [and] there is no permissible interpretation which justifies its adoption." Overruling Pincham, the supreme court wrote that "the fit between the means and the end to be achieved need not be perfect."

Pincham says he remembers that case--"the Lord moves in mysterious ways." As for his present case, "People are encouraging me to continue. This is a David and Goliath fight. These parking ordinances have gotten out of control. It started off being a good thing, and now every alderman gets it passed just to satisfy a handful of constituents. This is not something we should tolerate. It's a matter of right and wrong. If we accept every order of the power structure simply because it is the power structure we will end up with a tyranny. It all starts with parking tickets."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.

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