Attorney Karin Riley Porter practices in Virginia and is a former prosecutor and judicial clerk. She covers cases ranging from traffic and serious misdemeanors to felony offenses.
Although D.C.’s Department of Public Works maintains that parking and traffic enforcement officers do not have monthly ticket quotas, residents of the District have ample reason to believe otherwise. The tiny District writes an inordinately large number of traffic tickets compared to all other metropolitan cities.
Although these citations are ostensibly meant to help ease the flow of traffic, you would be hard pressed to find a DC local who believes that the techniques employed by parking enforcement help abate the District’s infamous rush-hour gridlock.
Inconsistent enforcement of traffic laws, complex parking rules and confusion among the city employees who have the power to issue tickets have long plagued DC’s residents and visitors alike. Meanwhile, the city government continues to collect huge amounts of revenue from the infractions.
The unique dynamic of traffic in the District makes it easy to find a driver violating one of the many applicable laws or regulations at any given time of day. DC’s population nearly doubles every day as commuters, visitors and tourists flood the Capitol.
All of these people have places to be and strict schedules to keep, and the vast majority are driving in private vehicles. Parking is hard to find and posted restrictions about who can park when and where are often vague or overly complex.
D.C. has nearly double the number of traffic laws than does New York City, many of which are obscure and are seemingly only enforced at random. When even long-term residents are often amazed to learn the reason they have been cited for a traffic violation, out-of-towners don’t stand a chance.
Tickets are doled out in the District by employees of both the Department of Public Works and the District Department of Transportation, as well as, of course, police officers. The city gave out about 1.6 million tickets in the last fiscal year, amounting to nearly $90 million dollars. Although it is no surprise that offending drivers often feel they have been targeted unfairly, D.C. is notorious for inconsistent ticketing.
A 2014 report by the D.C. Inspector General determined that many tickets given pursuant to ‘catches’ by the District’s numerous speed-cameras were the result of arbitrary decisions by employees reviewing the footage.
Parking laws also often seem to be inconsistently enforced, lending credence to the widespread suspicion that traffic enforcement officers are expected to meet certain monthly quotas. There is no incentive under the current enforcement system for city employees to ensure that a motorist is knowingly violating the law before issuing a citation.
Although the Department of Public Works has repeatedly denied that a quota system exists, it is undeniable that the current system is strongly biased toward city. Anyone who has been ticketed is presumed to have been in violation of the law at the time they received the citation, regardless of whether proof of that violation exists.
Motorists who return to their vehicle to find a ticket awaiting them are often helpless to rebut their supposed infraction. Visitors from other states are even less likely to oppose a ticket than are locals, many of whom do not feel fighting the ticket is worth the time or money required, regardless of their innocence of the charge.
The 2014 Inspector General report noted that this “guilty unless proven innocent” logic applies even when photographic evidence of the supposed infraction exists, such as when tickets were issued as a result of footage captured by automated traffic cameras. The Inspector General noted that tickets were often sent to registered owners of vehicles different from those that had been ‘caught in the act’ on film.
It is the city’s policy to presume that the owner switched out the plates, rather than admitting they may in fact not have been illegally driving some strange car. When a ticketed motorist is presumed to have done whatever wrong they were ticketed for, proving otherwise is often impossible.
The damning 2014 report contained many rules and standards that the Inspector General suggested should be implemented by the local DC government to shift the onus of proving traffic violations back to the city, where it should rightfully be. Two years later, traffic violations are still big city business, and it does not appear any of those suggestions have been adopted.
City employees continue to wield the power to cite unsuspecting drivers for violating laws they may not be aware of. When these employees are imbued by the city with the discretion to decide whether or not that driver deserves a warning before the citation is issued, it is clear who bears the burden.
Borderstan contributor and law firm sponsor Price Benowitz LLP. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the author — our contributor and law firm sponsor Price Benowitz LLP — and do not necessarily reflect the views of Borderstan.