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The Ultimate Taxpayer Victory Over D.C.

"Good luck," I told Sean Dougherty. "I'll be thrilled if you win, but you won't."

How wrong I was. Among the myriad ways in which you can't beat city hall, having the District of Columbia apologize to you for improperly towing your car -- and then getting them to deliver said car back to your home -- would have to be near the top of the list.

But that is precisely what Dougherty has achieved. The 32-year-old Shaw resident could barely believe it himself, but a combination of courteous persistence, strategic escalation, and the power of being right allowed him to set the bar higher than ever for all who do battle with the beast that is the District government.

It all started on Friday the 13th, when Dougherty's 1997 Honda Accord was booted. Dougherty had feared this might happen because the District's Department of Motor Vehicles had botched his effort to fight three tickets. Dougherty got the tickets after the city gave his car a "courtesy tow" for parking in a street cleaning zone; the District's tow man put the Honda at a meter on U Street NW, and by the time Dougherty figured out where his car was, it had been slapped with three overtime parking tickets.

That didn't seem fair, so Dougherty sought to have the tickets overturned. The city first lost Dougherty's request for a hearing, then mishandled it. After six months of hearing nothing, he called and was told to be patient -- his tickets had been placed on hold and there was no danger that he'd be towed.

Wrong. When Dougherty found the boot on his car, he called and wrote the motor vehicle office -- and bumped it up to his D.C. Council member, Jim Graham (D-Ward 1.) "I honestly don't think I should have to pay," Dougherty wrote.

Then, just hours after sending his plea for help, Dougherty discovered that now his car had been towed away.

This was war. "It was the principle," Dougherty says. "I've gotten parking tickets in the past, of course, and I've fought them when I was in the right, and I've paid them when I was wrong. In this case, I'd never done anything wrong. From the moment they improperly gave my car a 'courtesy tow' -- the city's cutesy euphemism for extraordinary automoblie rendition -- the die was cast."

Many hours of phone calls later, the motor vehicles office conceded error. "I apologize for the DMV error which resulted in your vehicle being erroneously booted and towed," wrote DMV's Lucinda Babers. "As you indicated, you adjudicated three tickets in August 2008, and we mistakenly sent you an appeals rejection letter which, in essence, ..... made the three tickets subject to booting and towing."

Dougherty could come pick up his car at the impoundment lot, no charge -- if he got there in 20 hours or less. Otherwise: Storage charges.

Nothing doing, Dougherty said. "Even when there were shootings on my block last year, I wasn't this disappointed in my city," he wrote in one protest email. "D.C. effectively stole my automobile."

He wasn't about to take time off from work -- he's a lawyer, if you haven't guessed by now -- pay for cabs and spend several hours to correct the city's error.

"I had this mental image of Mayor Fenty sitting in a fancy restaurant in Dubai while I was being taken to the cleaners," Dougherty says.

So he asked the city to deliver his car "back to my neighborhood, placed in a legal spot. ..... It'd go a long way toward helping me forget this experience and shouldn't be very difficult. And it only seems fair."

Ninety-four minutes after Dougherty sent that email to his council member and the Department of Public Works, its chief, William Howland, wrote back with an apology and abject surrender: "DPW will put your vehicle back as close to the location that we towed it from. The vehicle will be delivered this afternoon."

Later that afternoon, Dougherty got word that his car had been delivered to the block he lives on.

Alas, our happy ending swerves a bit here. Dougherty went outside and indeed found a car plastered with DMV tow stickers. But it wasn't his car. The city delivered the wrong vehicle.

Another email, and two hours later, Dougherty was reunited with his Honda. "Staff has put your car where you saw the other car," Howland wrote. "I really, really am sorry for the confusion."

By Marc Fisher |  March 23, 2009; 8:15 AM ET
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

It appears that you *can* fight city hall. Good for him.

I only take one issue:

"In this case, I'd never done anything wrong."

From what I can tell from this story, he only got his 'courtesy tow' because he was illegally parked to begin with? If he had parked correctly, this wouldn't be an issue at all.

I agree that the city was in the wrong for everything *after* that, but let's not pretend like this guy is *completely* blameless.

Posted by: VTDuffman | March 23, 2009 10:43 AM


the first ticket i received was for parking in a street cleaning zone on cleaning day; however, the zone wasn't posted -- there was no sign. perhaps someone ripped it down, i don't know. that's why i chose to fight the tickets in the first place. i followed the letter of the law when i parked my car, and it snowballed from there.


Posted by: sjdougherty | March 23, 2009 10:56 AM

"the zone wasn't posted -- there was no sign."

"i followed the letter of the law when i parked my car"

While I have no idea if this is an accurate perception, your careful phrasing makes it seem like you knew you were parked in a street-cleaning zone, and tried to take advantage of the fact that the signs had disappeared.

Posted by: dcd1 | March 23, 2009 11:01 AM

"i followed the letter of the law when i parked my car, and it snowballed from there."

Which is fine if that's the case in this story, but there's no mention either way.

Posted by: VTDuffman | March 23, 2009 2:19 PM

Mr. Dougherty, you sir, at least for the next hour, are my hero and personal savior.

Posted by: phranquethegreat | March 24, 2009 4:15 PM

Shame about what happened to Mr Fisher. Hope he is enjoying the pbj and bologna sandwiches as a guest of the state of VA.
Maybe the WP can throw his bail!

Stupid liberal

Posted by: sheepherder | March 26, 2009 6:44 AM

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