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Bill to amend D.C. ticket appeals before council committee

Wednesday - 10/9/2013, 12:40pm  ET

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D.C. DMV Director Lucinda Babers testifies at Tuesday's hearing. (WTOP/Ari Ashe)

More on the proposal before the D.C. Council

Ari Ashe, WTOP Ticketbuster reporter

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WASHINGTON - At a Tuesday hearing on a bill aimed at addressing issues with the D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles, debate centered on a ticket adjudication system that many drivers feel is cumbersome and unfair.

The proposed bill, known as the Traffic Adjudication Amendment Act of 2013, would give drivers up to two years to re-open a ticket case if there's new evidence that clearly demonstrates their innocence. The new evidence would need to have been unavailable to someone doing their due diligence before the initial hearing decision.

The proposal also would require the DMV's appeals board to rule on appeals within six months, or else the ticket would be automatically dismissed.

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, D, and Councilman Jim Graham, D-Ward 1, proposed the bill in June, in part because of a series of WTOP Ticketbuster stories.

Many drivers think these measures will fix what they call a broken system.

"It's their position that they're right. We don't really have a lot we can say," said Jocelyn Johnson, who testified at the hearing before the council's Committee on Transportation and the Environment. "No matter what you tell them, you have to go through so many hoops. It goes above and beyond because they don't have a process to give you the benefit of anything."

That sentiment has been echoed many times to WTOP since the Ticketbuster series launched earlier this year. Many drivers are upset with the DMV over what they see as red tape and a lack of customer service. Some feel the department's hearing examiners are predisposed to finding ways to rule against drivers on challenged tickets.

DMV Director Lucinda Babers disagreed with that assessment when asked about whether the process is fair.

"Absolutely I believe so," Babers said. "I review hundreds of these cases. If I believed they weren't, then I'd do something about it if they have evidence to support it."

Babers also was asked about whether it's fair to think hearing examiners are predisposed to rule against the driver.

"No. For parking violations it is a preponderance of the evidence, and for moving violations it's clear and convincing. That's what the statute reads," she said.

Under D.C. law, parking violations are considered civil violations, meaning the hearing examiner must only rule on whether more evidence than not shows liability. In a criminal case, proof beyond a reasonable doubt is the standard.

D.C. Councilwoman Mary Cheh, chair of the transportation and environment committee, addressed the issues involved at Tuesday's hearing.

"I think this bill attempts to correct the inflexibility sometimes shown by the DMV when it comes to ticket adjudication," said Cheh, D-Ward 3. "Such inflexibility results in a feeling by people that they're being treated unfairly."

"If those residents go through an adjudication process for a ticket that they believe was erroneously issued, and they find the process to be unfair, overly lengthy or poorly administered, it leads them to believe the entire D.C. government functions similiarly," Cheh said. "For the general confidence of the public, we need to make sure these processes function properly."

Cheh pointed to a case in which a D.C. resident received a ticket and was found liable for a license plate he surrendered to the DMV years earlier. The councilwoman said the DMV should have looked into their own computers to confirm that.

WTOP has come across several cases where a driver was found liable under similar circumstances.

But Babers testified before the committee that many of the reforms proposed in the Mendelson-Graham bill would be very costly to implement, both in terms of money and staffing.

She pointed out that requiring the appeals board to rule on each appeal within six months would require at least 21 to 28 new staffers and seven to nine new three-member boards. She said the proposal also would add to the workload of hearing examiners, who would have to examine cases a second time.

Still, Babers agreed that some reforms are necessary and that there should be ways to let new evidence be presented to overturn a previous decision.

She told the committee she wants to work with them to come up with solutions to the problems that Mendelson, Graham and Cheh have identified, but without a massive increase in costs and manpower.

Cheh's committee now will review the bill's language and decide whether to change, approve or kill it.

If you think you're the victim of a bogus speed camera, red-light camera or parking ticket in D.C., Maryland or Virginia, WTOP may be able to help you cut the red tape. Email us your case - along with documentation - to ticketbuster@wtop.com.

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