After only 30 minutes, a courtroom buzzer rang.
By BRIAN BURNES
The Kansas City Star
The jury had reached a decision in an uncommon criminal trial. The defendant rose to face the judge, who read the verdict.
Guilty of illegally parking a vehicle on grass instead of on concrete, asphalt, paver stones or a similar durable hard surface.
The defendant, Larry Pearman, reacted in a measured, stoic way.
“The city makes ordinances just to make people conform,” he said outside the courtroom, shaking his head.
But he had gotten what he had asked for: his day in court.
Independence city prosecutor Mitchell Langford called Monday’s trial “rare.” In 11 years, he said, only five times could he remember a code violation being appealed to Jackson County Circuit Court.
Jackson County Circuit Judge Michael Manners had told jury pool members their day “would not be a profitable one,” given that county jurors earn only $6 a day, plus mileage. Still, he added, such service “is part of your civic duty.”
But Pearman believed a jury needed to hear his case.
Although he had sometimes parked as many as six cars in his backyard, Independence long had known about them, he said. The city’s zoning, he added, wasn’t consistent, regulating against cars parked on grass but sometimes allowing special-use variances for motor homes.
But ultimately Pearman tried to sell the jury on the notion that he had “stored” the cars in his yard rather than “parked” them there.
The city maintained that he was just trying to confuse the issue. The cars were parked on grass, and that was all that mattered.
The dispute began a year ago when an Independence zoning permits technician responded to an anonymous complaint concerning Pearman’s residence in the 3600 block of South Main Street.
Several cars stood parked in Pearman’s backyard, the technician testified. On a third visit, on April 17, 2012, he wrote a citation.
On June 27, an Independence municipal court judge found Pearman guilty. In August, Pearman appealed to the circuit court, where he hoped a jury would sympathize with his case.
On Monday, 40 prospective jurors sat down in Manners’ courtroom gallery.
Had any, Pearman asked, been found guilty of a municipal codes violation?
“What did you do?” Pearman asked
“I just pleaded guilty and paid the fine,” one prospective juror said.
“Why?” Pearman asked.
“Less of a hassle,” he answered.
Pearman explained he was acting as his own counsel. Two lawyers, he said, had cited retainer fees that represented “about seven months of my Social Security checks.”
Later, on the stand, Pearman identified himself as 71 and retired, having lived at the same address since 1981 and having stored cars in his backyard for years behind a privacy fence.
Pearman struggled with court procedure. More than once, Manners conducted a whispered conference with him. When Pearman asked the trial’s one witness, Independence zoning technician Michael Stewart, if a particular zoning clause was unclear, Manners asked the jury to leave and then threatened Pearman with contempt.
“You can ask questions but you can’t argue, you can’t debate,” Manners said.
In closing arguments, both Langford and Pearman addressed the trial’s central issue.
“When you ‘store’ something, the logical implication is protective in nature,” Langford said. “You don’t ‘store’ something that is out in the open.”
“Those vehicles had been there for a long period of time,” he said.
“That’s not parking. That’s storing.”
After reading the verdict, Manners thanked the jurors, saying that during his 12 years as a judge, “every trial I’ve been involved with is important to the persons involved.”
Afterward, Langford said it was appropriate for Independence to be vigilant in enforcing its residential zoning code.
“It would send a bad message if some people thought they could get out of a violation just by trying to make us work a little harder,” he said.
Pearman conceded the trial could have been avoided had he removed the cars from his backyard in a timely manner. But he was nostalgic about the cars, he said.
He also had hoped that if he had been cleared in court, city code technicians would leave him alone.
“That’s the whole problem,” he said. “The Independence municipal court is a revenue-generating body.”
Pearman’s $150 municipal court fine had been suspended pending the circuit court trial. Manners has scheduled sentencing for April 4.
Pearman now has 15 business days to submit letters asking Manners to set the verdict aside or grant a new trial.
“I’m getting too old to fight this stuff,” Pearman said regarding possible appeals before adding, “I’ll probably do it.”
To reach Brian Burnes, call 816-234-4120 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.