At City Hall in Hawthorne, people know that Mary Berks doesn't like to pay the tickets she gets for parking on her front lawn.
Oh, does she hate that. She calls it slavery, a violation of her constitutional rights to use her property as she sees fit.
"Every American and all should fight for this FREEDOM AND NEVER LET UP OR GIVE UP," she wrote in a homespun legal brief in one ticket case.
She never does let up.
"We know her by name," sighed Hawthorne City Treasurer Howard Wohlner. "I recollect a dozen or more times when she has been in here. . . . Nobody likes parking tickets."
The 75-year-old divorcee, who lives in the 4400 block of West 141st Street, has rained verbal brickbats on the mayor, the City Council, the city attorney, judges--whoever has the nerve and staying power to tell her she must pay her tickets.
"I don't care if this document is going to be a thousand pages," she wrote in the legal brief--which stopped after only seven. "I am going to have my say, for I have been tortured mentally, physically, financially and more."
By her own count, Berks, who drives a faded white, full-size 1965 Mercury Park Lane, has fought dozens of tickets for parking on her front lawn. She said she doesn't like to park in her driveway because her six grown children and other relatives use it. Street parking is scarce on her block, and she said she is afraid of being attacked if she has to park too far away.
The city banned front-yard parking on June 27, 1977, after complaints that the practice was unsightly and lowered property values.
Berks has won many cases at Municipal Court in Inglewood. One municipal judge, who asked not to be named, said he feels sorry for her and dismisses cases whenever he can.
"She figured out how to beat us in courts everywhere--just be so obnoxious that the judges want to get rid of her," grumped City Atty. Michael Adamson. "She knows what she is doing."
Won on Appeal
Berks has lost a few at the Inglewood court, too, but she doesn't give up. And last month, in the culmination of an unusual case, a four-member appellate court panel sided with her.
The case originated with two $23 fines for parking on her front lawn in July, 1984. After losing in the Inglewood court the following October, she appealed to the Los Angeles Superior Court.
Berks played heavily for sympathy in her brief to the appellate court, writing in an aside: "I can't help but tell you how I am disabled, in pain, my legs and arms swollen, how upset I am over all the trouble caused me.
"I am 75 years old and should be having peace and much-needed rest. It is a quarter to 3 a.m. and I have been typing for hours. I have to stop and lay down then back up again. I am so upset."
But Berks' prowess in legal combat does not rest entirely on an emotional appeal. She also understands how the system works.
Her Version 'Official'
To win her appeal, she managed to get her pretrial brief--complete with the asides that her heart was "beating erratic" and gibes about City Council members--accepted as the official record of the October trial.
The maneuver involved the "settled statement"--a document in Municipal Court appeals that serves in lieu of a trial transcript. Both sides are supposed to have a chance to make sure that a settled statement is accurate.
That is not the way it happened in the appeal of Berks' two tickets.
Hearings to decide the settled statement were scheduled for Dec. 13, 1984, and for the following Feb. 21 and March 14, according to court records. Berks did not appear at any of them, wrote Assistant City Atty. Marilyn A. Wiczynski in another court document. "Her excuse was always illness."
But a hearing was held on May 2 and the city--which claims it knew nothing of the proceeding--didn't show up. Municipal Court Judge William Ormsby accepted Berks' pretrial brief as a settled statement. A "rambling discourse, replete with irrelevant, immaterial statements made prior to the trial, is now being offered to the court as a settled statement," Wiczynski wrote in response to Ormsby's action. "There has been no compliance with the rules of court."
Ormsby said he did not want to talk about the Berks case.
"We don't know why he did it," Wiczynski said. "I didn't know he signed this incredible document until I saw it in the court file and said, 'By God, no way!' I went to appellate court and motioned for relief." But the motion was denied, she said, because the appellate judges said they were not going to second-guess Ormsby.
"They wanted to get rid of her and they told her to get out and go home," Wiczynski said.
Berks' recollection is different. She said that the appeals judges agreed with her that she was being harassed and reversed her conviction.
Superior Court Judge Abby Sovin, who sat on the appeals panel, agreed with the city attorney that the settled statement in the Berks case is bizarre as legal documents go.
'Eccentric Old Lady'
But she denied that judges side with Berks just to get her out of the courtroom. "I doubt that is true," she said, adding that "the one thing we will agree on is that this is an eccentric old lady."
"Crazy like a fox," commented City Atty. Adamson. He emphasized that the appellate panel did not overturn the city's ban on front-lawn parking, and noted that he did win two ticket cases against Berks last year.
"I fight injustice," Berks said. "If that's eccentric, that is my life. Maybe I'm not running on eight cylinders because of all the trouble, but I am still going on six!"
On Monday, she lost a new case in Municipal Court.
"I will appeal this," she told Commissioner Jeffrey F. Engler.
"I hope you win," he replied.