On the afternoon of Nov. 19, 1994, Dupont Circle resident Phil Carney stood on Constitution Avenue, just north of the Capitol, happily involved in one of his pet projects: painting an old police call box. He wasn’t quite finished returning the rust- covered case to its historic shades of dark blue and gray when he drew the attention of a young Capitol policeman. Carney smiled, as he usually did when approached by John Law, and said, “Hi.” The officer called for backup.
Moments later, Carney had traded his paintbrush for handcuffs. He was arrested and charged with destruction of government property—a felony. The would-be beautifier remained in police custody for the next 10 hours.
Carney had no official authority to paint the call box. But that hasn’t stopped him before. A former bureaucrat with the IRS and the Defense Department, he is now on a disability retirement which left him free to carry out a self-appointed civic-improvement program. “Something snapped,” he says, “[when I] realized that things were just going downhill and the city wasn’t doing anything.”
As an active member of the Dupont Circle Citizens Association (DCCA), Carney tore down fliers and posters, pulled up weeds in public playgrounds, and inspected alleys on the “rat patrol.” His fervent convictions led him to Bronsonesque showdowns, like the one at a candidate forum last August, when he delivered a dead rat in a Baggie to Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly.
But he never expected to run afoul of the law for sprucing up call boxes. Carney figures he’s “restored” 40 or more with new paint jobs over the last year-and-a-half. “I wasn’t out looking for the Nobel Prize,” he contends. “Neither was I looking for handcuffs.” The boxes have languished unused since the introduction of walkie-talkies; Carney calls them “neat architectural sculptures.” In his view, a neglected call box has global ramifications. “I discovered a fire box and a police call box at the corner on Pennsylvania Avenue next to Blair House. And they just looked like absolute shit. They were just rusty crap. My god, you’ve got world leaders staying a few feet away and walking by these things.”
“Where’s the harm in using paint to restore something?” he asks. “[The call boxes are] abandoned property as far as I’m concerned.”
And in general, Carney says, cops have seemed to approve. “They come up and ask me what I’m doing and thank me and go their merry way,” he says. “I [painted a call box] in front of the Russian Embassy, so obviously [the policeman] was right there. So we chitchatted about life and whatnot.”
But Sgt. Dan Nichols of the Capitol Police takes a more legalistic view. Whatever the boxes’ condition, they remain the property of the D.C. government. “Where do we draw the line?” he asks. “Suppose somebody doesn’t like the color of our squad cars? It’s not within Mr. Carney’s rights, or anyone’s rights, to paint public property.”
Escorted to the Capitol Police station, Carney surrendered his personal belongings, was fingerprinted and photographed, then sat on a bench—his wrist shackled to the wall—for three hours. During the wait, his charge was reduced to defacing property, a misdemeanor. That was the “good” news. The bad news was that, since his crime would be prosecuted by the D.C. Corporation Counsel, he had to be transferred to the Metropolitan Police Department’s central cellblock, where he was fingerprinted and photographed once again.
Placed in a cell for short-term detainees, Carney spent another five hours waiting until a Capitol policeman escorted him to yet a third police station, in Southwest. Once there, he was released from handcuffs, given paperwork for his court appearance, and told to take a hike—which he did in shoes with no laces. By now, it was after midnight. Carney had to walk across town alone, back to the Capitol Police station to reclaim his wallet and keys.
“All in all,” he says, “it was not a good day.”’
On Dec. 29, he spent three more hours in court. There, he found out that his case was “a no-paper,” meaning that prosecutors had declined to follow up. Carney was a free man.
He manages a jaded sense of humor about his case’s many ironies. “One of my other pet projects is graffiti,” he explains. (He’s against it.) “I’ve now been arrested for what the vandals would be arrested for—except I don’t ever see them getting arrested.” Further paradox is that if Carney had been found guilty, “the appropriate sentence would be to continue to do what I was arrested for doing.” He laughs wearily. “What can I say?”
DCCA President Marilyn Groves can’t say enough nice things about Carney. “Of all the people who might have had this happen to them, I can’t think of anyone less deserving,” she says. After listing Carney’s generous good deeds and WeedWacking skill, she scoffs, “Community service—you either get arrested for it or assigned to it.”
Since his arrest, Carney has kept his distance from DCCA, not wishing to embarrass the organization with his criminal record. His spirit is deflated, if not entirely quashed. He says, “I’m staying away from paint. In fact, I swore I wasn’t going to do anything ever, but I still stop and pull down posters as I’m walking around.”
Never mind the arrest’s disastrous effect on Carney’s civic impulse. Police spokesman Nichols maintains that the arresting officer took “appropriate law enforcement action” when confronted with Carney’s loaded paintbrush.
Kevin Ohlson of the U.S. Attorney’s Office echoes that sentiment: “A single citizen shouldn’t take it upon him or herself to paint public property.” But noting that the court has “more than enough cases to keep us busy,” he cites the “standard of reasonableness” for whether the action warrants prosecution. “If the facts are as stated,” he says, “it would appear that the Assistant Attorney who handled this case took the appropriate action.”
Of course, Carney clearly feels that he, too, took “appropriate action” in the face of neglected city services.
In this battle for the appropriate high ground, Carney scores the most appropriate comment. Letting out a fatigued sigh, he notes the District government’s call for more volunteers as government resources shrink. “Based on my experience,” he offers sadly, “I would say, well, be a volunteer—but first hire an attorney.”