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 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.
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.
“What I can tell you is what type of information our operators provide. When someone speaks to a customer service representative from DDOT, what they are told is that they’re subject to a ticket, even if they’re reporting it. The best thing you can do is not park at that meter, but rather look for another meter,” says Hernandez.
Gattison says that 311 operators read the following script to drivers reporting broken meters.
“This confirmation number is for the repair of the meter. If you receive a ticket and you disagree with the ticket you do have the option to follow the instructions on the back of the ticket to contest the violation.”
Gattison adds that calls to 311 are recorded and kept for 90 days. But since this call occurred in September 2012, the audio of LaFontant’s call to 311 is no longer available.
“The fact that the DMV would just discount four retired naval officers was a shock to me. We took the time to write statements that the meter was broken. To question the integrity of four veterans over $2 for parking is mind-blowing,” says LaFontant.
Richards says she’s amazed at LaFontant’s persistence.
“I’m of the belief that the system is broken in D.C. and I’ll just pay the ticket, which is wrong. But things in life that are this simple shouldn’t be made this complicated,” Richards says.
LaFontant says he will no longer call 311 to report broken meters, and he thinks a lot of people will question whether they should too.
“I believe it’s a waste of time. I did the right thing — I called 311. In the end, I get rewarded with collection agencies hounding me to pay a $25 ticket. This is not about the money. It’s about the principle of the issue,” he says.
Hernandez says drivers should report broken meters, despite what happened in this case.
“Why should someone do it? We want to make sure we’re on top of our system, that we are correcting any issues that are out there,” she says. “Our goal is to ensure that all of the meters are working. It’s going to take us hearing from the public, us doing our regular maintenance of meters. We encourage people to report broken meters.”
LaFontant says while some good Samaritans will remain, others will not take the time.
“I think people will question: What’s the value of calling 311? It’s not going to benefit me. Why would I do it, then still deal with a ticket and the bureaucracy? Most people will just move their car and never report it,” he says.
LaFontant argues that drivers should be allowed to park at a broken meter for the time allowed in the zone. For example, in a two-hour parking zone, drivers should get two free hours after reporting a broken meter.
But one city official tells WTOP that such a system could lead to abuse. The official says drivers could call in false broken-meter reports to avoid feeding the meter. If broken-meter reports are unreliable, then DDOT would have a harder time ensuring that all meters are working.
“I understand the District’s position that there could be thousands of people calling in broken meters to avoid paying to park or getting a ticket, but I don’t think that’s the case. I think they should trust people more and trust good Samaritans that are trying to do the right thing,” says LaFontant.
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