D.C. Metro to “Phantom Planter”: Stop Planting Flowers, Or Else!

Morning Glories (CHRISTINE DeLESSIO KRT/Newscom)

“It’s sort of beyond the scope of what you would imagine some private citizen would do,” said Washington, D.C., Metro spokesman Dan Stessel of Henry Docter’s activities. Indeed. It’s not often that a husband, father of two, part-time lawyer, children’s book author, and collage artist finds time to plant flowers alongside subway stations. Yet, that’s exactly what Docter, affectionately nicknamed “the Phantom Planter” by approving fellow citizens, has done. He’s planted and tended more than 1,000 morning glories and other flowers he planted in barren flower boxes alongside escalators at the Dupont Circle subway station in downtown Washington.

Metro’s response to this public service? Threaten Docter with arrest, fines, and imprisonment.

This menace to public safety has been deliberately beautifying the Metro station surroundings since October 2012. But this is hardly the first time that Docter planted tulips and daffodils.  Indeed, by his own admission, he is responsible for the planting of more than 40,000 flowers across the globe, from the Israeli embassy and Navy memorial in Washington to public spaces in Argentina, Spain, and Cambodia. What motivates this global recidivist? “Flowers are nature’s way of affirming how beautiful life can be,” Docter explains.

This June, Docter made the mistake of notifying Metro officials of his activities. He did so because he was concerned that they would confuse certain flowers he had planted with weeds and destroy them. Instead of thanking him, they told him—well, ordered him on pain of imprisonment—to stop his planting altogether. For his own safety. Because the service ramps that he uses to get to the boxes are narrow.

Although Docter has never had any difficulty with the ramps, he’s willing to play ball. He’s willing to wear a harness, like Metro workers. He’s willing to sign a liability waiver saying he won’t sue if he’s hurt. He’s willing to do the work for $1 dollar a year if Metro wants to hire him and make it official. So far, Metro officials have found none of those alternatives a satisfactory alternative to his jailing.

Metro has since retreated—sort of. Spokesman Stessel recently conceded that, “The word ‘imprisonment’ is one we probably would have omitted had it originated in our general counsel’s office.” But this not-even-an-apology is insufficient. A statement by a spokesman carries no legal weight. Even if one take it as a definitive statement that Docter will not be imprisoned, it does not reassure Docter that he will not be subject to arrest or fines if he continues to tend his garden. Metro has said that it wants to find a solution that’s affordable, sustainable, and safe—does anyone know what that means?

The very fact that Metro issued a cease-and-desist order to someone planting flowers (that everyone seemed to enjoy, no less) reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of what the criminal law should be used for—punishing people who hurt other people. That problem will not be resolved by a Metro-sponsored beautification effort—it will only be resolved if Metro’s belligerent bureaucrats cease and desist from intimidating peaceful planters.

The Metro officials who bullied Docter need to stop and smell the morning glories.

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