“You are guilty until you have proven yourself innocent. … That has worked well for us.”
– A “senior” District of Columbia official, explaining to an investigator how tickets are issued in the nation’s capital.
There is a startling abuse of power in Washington — an appalling overreach by the government — and it has nothing to do with the feds.
A report issued last week by D.C.’s inspector general confirmed what many who live and work in Washington have known for a while: The capital is on the cutting edge of efforts nationwide to squeeze more revenue out of the public by forcing motorists to pay money to resolve “violations” they did not commit.
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D.C. has hired an army of parking enforcement personnel and has installed hundreds of cameras to give automatic tickets for speeding and other moving violations. Those efforts brought in $172 million for the D.C. treasury last year — and they have spun completely out of control.
The IG found that D.C., unlike jurisdictions such as Virginia, Maryland, Illinois, California and New York, has virtually no restrictions on the speed cameras. In addition to the guilty-until-proven-innocent mindset quoted above, the IG found that tickets are being issued to vehicles even if the police can’t “conclusively identify” the violator and even if the vehicle doesn’t match the registration information. A District study that tried to show the public that speed cameras were installed to improve safety, not just to bring in revenue, “created the opposite effect,” the IG said.
As it happens, the day before the IG report came out, I received a “Notice of Infraction” from D.C. police saying I had run a stop sign. The photos and video offered as evidence showed my car moving slowly and braking until it did what a reasonable person might call “stopping.” But I got a $50 ticket – same as if I had ignored the stop sign. A week later, I got another “Notice of Infraction” – this one saying I had run a red light a few blocks away. I had made a legal right on red after a slow-rolling stop – but I got a $150 ticket, same as if I had blown straight through the intersection at full speed. A police spokeswoman said my actions justified both tickets.
I showed the videos to Lon Anderson, who runs government relations for AAA Mid-Atlantic. He said a human officer wouldn’t ticket either supposed infraction, because “there was no safety threat in either case.” But the cameras are there for money, not safety.
“D.C. has been executing a war on motorists,” running “a major revenue-making enterprise that is not strictly or even marginally related to safety,” Anderson said. “This has become a gotcha game for greenbacks.”
Anderson said he’s all for punishing people who speed or who run lights, because they are a danger. “But we’ve got these cameras that are ticketing you for going an inch over the stop line, or making a rolling right on red, or unintentionally running a red light by two-tenths, three-tenths of a second. … It’s a system run wild.”
D.C. officials testified before a Senate committee Monday afternoon about their desire for statehood. I’m sympathetic, but statehood is not going to happen anytime soon — nor should it, if the government runs the place like a banana republic. Clearly, D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier isn’t for reform; she called the IG report “flawed” and “sensationalist.” If the D.C. Council can’t get itself in line with the rest of the country, perhaps Congress can force a change.
The Washington Post’s Ashley Halsey, writing about the report, said it portrays D.C. as “the Wild West of traffic enforcement.” That’s true, but in a way it’s more like the Soviet East, where officials invented rules and citizens had no recourse.
I drive all over town to cover events, so I get more than my share of parking and camera tickets. I generally pay them, regardless of merit, treating them as a cost of doing business. I challenged some at first, but with adjudication examiners having average annual caseloads of 11,514 each, success is a remote possibility.
I sent in photos and a video showing that I had not parked in an “emergency” zone as the ticket indicated — appeal denied, no explanation. I sent photos and a video showing that I had not parked in a “motorcycle” space as the ticket said — appeal denied, no explanation.
In Washington, you aren’t guilty until proven innocent. You’re just guilty.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.
© 2014, Washington Post Writers Group