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Why reporting a broken parking meter may not help you

Thursday - 2/6/2014, 4:26pm  ET

METER.JPG
You can call 311 to report a broken meter, but it may not do you any good. (WTOP/Ari Ashe)

WASHINGTON -- Every parking meter in the District of Columbia has a sticker on it that tells drivers to report a broken meter by calling 311, but one man tells WTOP Ticketbuster that operators aren't properly trained and drivers need to beware.

Patrick LaFontant is a retired naval officer, serving from 1987 to 2010. He was honorably discharged and now works with former Navy colleagues for a company that helps disabled veterans and the Department of Homeland Security.

On Sept. 20, 2012, LaFontant parked his car on the 600 block of D Street in Southwest for a meeting, got out and discovered the meter wasn't working. According to records obtained by WTOP, LaFontant called 311 at 12:53 p.m. and spoke to an operator named Sumie Coleman. At 1:10 p.m., Department of Public Works officer Derrick Hartsfield cited LaFontant for parking at an expired meter.

"I put several quarters in the meter and no time registered. So I thought I would be a good Samaritan and call DC 311 to report the issue to the city," says LaFontant.

"I spoke to an operator. I got her name [and] a reference number and I took the serial number of the meter. No other information was provided to me than the reference number. So we went to the meeting, got our government badges, and then returned to find a ticket on my car. I thought it was no problem because I had the operator's name and a reference number; the ticket should be quickly dismissed," he says.

LaFontant Ticket and Adjudication

LaFontant appealed the ticket to the Department of Motor Vehicles, which adjudicates tickets in the District of Columbia. Four co-workers in his vehicle provided sworn statements to the DMV.

"I was happy to write the letter because I saw that the meter was, in fact, broken. We weren't trying to cheat the system or anything like that. [LaFontant] really wanted to do the right thing and report it, rather than go into a spot that was not legal," says co-worker Denise Richards, who has also served in the Navy.

In October 2012, Chief Hearing Examiner Cassandra Claytor ruled against LaFontant.

"In response to the respondent's claim of a broken meter, DMV Adjudication Services initiated a service request for a meter check with the DC Department of Transportation (DDOT), which is responsible for installing and maintaining parking meters in the District. The outage history of the meter was checked for any complaints, outages or repairs during the time period the violation occurred. A review of the meter data did not reveal an outage during the time period of the violation," the ruling states.

According to records obtained by WTOP, a technician checked the meter at 600 D Street SW on Sept. 24, 2012, and found that the meter was working properly.

LaFontant says while he understands, he is upset that the 311 operator never told him that he should move his car. He says that information was vital and should have been communicated.

"Ms. Coleman should have provided more information. I only learned from [WTOP] that it is a District requirement that if you park at a broken parking meter, you are required to move because you are getting free parking. The operator didn't tell me that. So how was I supposed to know that just getting a reference number wasn't sufficient?" says LaFontant, who says he would have moved his car.

Technically, you can park at a broken meter in the District of Columbia. Under DC Municipal Regulation Code 50-2303.5 (a) (2) a legal defense to a parking violation is, "The relevant parking meter was inoperable or malfunctioned through no fault of the Appellant." But in order to assert that defense, a technician has to find the meter was, in fact, broken.

LaFontant FOIA Request

DDOT Spokeswoman Monica Hernandez and DC 311 Spokeswoman Wanda Gattison say that operators are trained to tell drivers not to remain at a broken meter. When a driver calls 311, DDOT does not traditionally answer the call. A 311 operator takes the information, then passes the information to DDOT staffers.

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