D.C. excuses millions of dollars in late fees for tickets

Mark Segraves, wtop.com

WASHINGTON – The District’s Department of Motor Vehicles dismissed approximately $5 million in late fees for photo enforced tickets and other fines last year, many of them because the agency could not prove the original fines were ever received.

Hearing examiners, who adjudicate disputes between drivers who received the fines and the city, routinely dismiss late fees on photo enforced tickets if the recipient of the fines tells the examiner he never received the first notice of an unsatisfied ticket.

According to records provided by the DMV, 66,129 late penalties were waived in fiscal year 2012. While the agency is unable to say how many of those waived penalties came from photo enforcement, the agency director says the DMV adjudicates about 380,092 parking and traffic tickets a year, about 15 percent of those are related to photo enforcement.

According to a transcript of a recent adjudication hearing for a photo-enforced speeding ticket, when the driver told the hearing examiner that he never received the first notice of the fine, she immediately waived the $250 late fee.

“Since we are not the people who send the notices, I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and hold you only liable for the infraction without that additional penalty,” Rose Musonye-Smith, DMV hearing examiner, told the man in a Feb. 3, 2012 adjudication hearing.

When the man complained that this was the second time he’d been mailed a late notice on a fine for which he never received the original notice, Musonye-Smith acknowledged there is a problem.

“We are aware, and that’s why if someone tells me they never received the first notice, I don’t question them,” she said.

Lucinda Babers, director of the D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles, says the problem is not as widespread as the hearing transcript indicates, but acknowledged examiners often don’t question drivers who say they never received the first notice of a photo enforcement fine.

“Hearing examiners often remove penalties during the 120-day adjudication period (original 60-day adjudication period and the additional 60 days for filing a motion to vacate default judgment) if the customer indicates the ticket was not received,” Babers wrote in an email.

Babers says she’s not sure why people aren’t receiving their original notices of fines.

“There is not an issue with our vendor not sending out the photo enforcement notices,” Babers wrote. “Instead, as with any organization, there may be an occasional issue of mail not being delivered once it is sent out. Although we’re not aware of a published industry standard for returned mail, we have worked with USPS and bulk mailing companies to reduce returned mail. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to address mail that is neither delivered or returned.”

Babers says when original notices of fines, or notices of unsatisfied fines are mailed out and are returned a notation is made in the DMV database indicating the notice was not received.

“When ticket related mail, sent out by our vendor is returned, the vendor enters a ‘nixie’ designation in the system indicating the mail was returned by the post office,” Babers wrote.

Hearing adjudicators do not have access to that data according to the hearing transcript. According to data provided by the DMV, 619 tickets currently have a “nixie” designation.

As for what the District can do to ensure the delivery of notices, the DMV does send ticket-related mail via first class, but they do not send it registered mail which would provide proof of receipt.

“We can’t afford to send registered mail,” Babers said.

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(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)

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