City seeks pre-trial dismissal of South Broad median parking lawsuit

The City of Philadelphia’s lawyers argue that a lawsuit to compel the ticketing of cars in the Broad Street median should be dismissed with prejudice.

Last month, urbanist advocacy group 5th Square sued the Philadelphia Parking Authority and the Philadelphia Police Department as part of a long-running campaign to end the long-standing tradition of parking illegally in the middle of south Broad Street. If a judge agrees to the city’s request, and dismisses the lawsuit with prejudice before it goes to trial, 5th Square would be prohibited from refiling an amended version of the lawsuit.

The lawsuit, filed by 5th Square co-founder Jake Liefer, provoked a fierce backlash from the practice’s defenders. But Liefer argued that median parking is both blatantly illegal and obviously dangerous — he says that there are more vehicular crashes on South Broad below Washington Avenue than any other stretch of the arterial thoroughfare.

To show that 5th Square suffered sufficient harm to have standing to sue over the issue, Liefer argued that the all-volunteer organization had been forced to divert their limited resources to the campaign in lieu of other worthy causes.

While enraged neighbors have been responding to Liefer, often venomously, for the past few weeks, the city’s Law Department recently joined the fray by filing a response in Common Pleas Court.

The city’s solicitors outline two objections to Liefer’s case. The Law Department first argued that 5th Square lacks standing to pursue the case, saying that the organization couldn’t show the kind of substantial, direct, and immediate harm required to sue. Several lawyers PlanPhilly spoke with stated that the group case would be stronger if they had someone who was involved in a traffic crash because of the irregularly parked cars on Broad Street.

The city’s response runs along the same line, stating that “Liefer offers no examples of injury or even near-injury” to support his claim, arguing that “it is merely 5th Square’s preference that the PPD and the PPA more strictly enforce regulations regarding parking in the median.”

But the Law Department also says that Liefer’s attempt at a mandamus action — an order that would force the city to enforce the parking ordinance on South Broad’s median — doesn’t have any merit either.   

According to the city’s response, the Parking Authority and the Philadelphia Police Department are free to decide exactly when and how they want to enforce the city’s parking ordinances.

“The decision to direct resource towards ticketing every single car on the Broad Street median is a discretionary one,” the city’s response reads, “and would divert PPD and PPA officers and resources from other duties that, in their professional determination and discretion, are more pressing.”

The city concludes by quoting an 1982 case, City Firefighters Association v. City of Philadelphia, which found that having the courts compel city government to review discretionary administrative acts would undermine the  separation of powers fundamental to the structure of American government. The ballot box, not the courtroom, is where Liefer and his allies should turn their attention, the city solicitors argue.

Contacted for his take on these preliminary objections, Liefer said he was unworried.

“We think we have sufficient standing, so we look forward to prevailing past these preliminary objections,” said Liefer. “They are using boilerplate language that any defendant would use to try to throw out a lawsuit rather than review the merit of the case.”

Meanwhile, outside the court system, 5th Square advocacy has riled backlash of other kinds.

This densely populated corner of the city is starved for parking, as its neat rows of two-story rowhouses were built out long before car ownership became a mass phenomena. As a result, South Philadelphians have stashed their cars in an array of illegal spaces for generations, with the South Broad Street median among the most visible. Emotions run hot in defense of the tradition, and some of Liefer’s opponents have threatened violence on social media.

Liefer’s lawsuit and 5th Square’s larger campaign has catalyzed political resistance as well. A former police detective is planning to run for state representative in the 184th district, which covers South Broad Street, and legalizing parking in the thoroughfare’s median would be a central plank of his campaign.

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