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WASHINGTON — Thousands of drivers each year receive delinquency notices in the mail for tickets that don’t belong to them, a WTOP Ticketbuster investigation has found.
Drivers’ complaints helped uncover a larger problem in the ticketing program in the District of Columbia that lacks proper safeguards to protect innocent drivers, mostly from Maryland and Virginia.
“I got a notice in the mail in October saying that I had a parking ticket in D.C. in September, on a day that I was at work in Bethesda,” says Jenn Idol, who says she never goes into D.C. “They had my license plate right, but they said the plate number belonged to a Mercedes, which I do not own. I own a Toyota.”
Drivers getting these notices all report the same basic problem: The ticket has the correct license plate, but the make of the vehicle and other key facts are wrong.
“It’s very frustrating because I never drive into the District, so I knew the ticket couldn’t be mine. It looked like they got my license plate right, but it said ‘Lexus’ and I own a Chevy,” says Clare Pilkington, of South Riding, Va.
As WTOP Ticketbuster reported, the D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) would not dismiss Pilkington’s ticket until an appeals board ruled within two years on her case. The DMV adjudicates all traffic tickets in the city.
Walt Edwards, of Arlington, went through the same ordeal twice in the last year. In 2013, Edwards and the DMV fought for 10 months over a ticket before it was dropped. Earlier this month, he received another defective ticket in the mail. As WTOP Ticketbuster uncovered, two D.C. agencies missed the preventable error.
“It’s totally absurd and it’s a dereliction of duty on the part of everyone in the chain. All the way from the person who wrote the defective ticket to the DMV, who did not pull a full record to show that I own a Nissan and the ticket says an Acura,” says Edwards.
The problem begins when a ticket writer puts the wrong license plate on a citation. The driver who committed the offense decides to ignore it. One month later, the D.C. DMV contacts the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration or the Virginia DMV and asks for the name and address of the owner.
However, the D.C. DMV does not ask for the make and model of the vehicle, or whether the license plate is still active. Such safeguards are common outside the District, as the WTOP Ticketbuster investigation uncovered.
“I don’t request it because the ticket has been issued. The ticket is done,” says DMV Director Lucinda Babers. “It is not up to me to now request make and model information that would have been beneficial to the ticket issuing agency or the driver.”
Babers tells WTOP that because DMV adjudicates tickets, it’s not up to her to do the work that the ticket writers should have done. She says there’s nothing her office could do with the information.
“I, personally, as the person who is in charge of adjudication services, have no need for the make because I cannot act upon it. I cannot wholesale get make and models and then adjudicate tickets,” says Babers.
In Montgomery County, when an out-of-state driver does not pay a ticket, parking officials will reach out the DMV and get name, address, make and model and compare the ticket against the record.
Montgomery County contracts Duncan Solutions to do the work. This summer, Montgomery County will switch to Xerox State and Local Solutions and put a new system in place to automatically catch mismatches between the record and the ticket. D.C. also uses Xerox.
“If they don’t match, instead of a letter being generated and mailed out with a delinquency, that file will be thoroughly reviewed on the front end. We can administrative dismiss these mismatches before sending out a letter to someone, upsetting them, making them waste their time to send us a letter back,” says Rick Siebert, chief of the Montgomery County Parking Division.
He says he believes such safeguards save money in the long run. He argues that when incorrect delinquency notices are mailed out, it costs money to process a response letter, pay a customer service representative to talk to the driver and draft a response letter. In the end, he says Montgomery County would compare the ticket against the DMV record, unlike the District of Columbia.
“I can completely understand how this would frustrate a driver. We are very happy about improving our system in Montgomery County in regards to not bothering drivers for delinquent tickets that they had nothing to do with,” Siebert says.
In Fairfax County, when an out-of-state driver does not pay a ticket, parking officials also reach out to the DMV and get the driver’s name and address and the make and model of the car, and compare the ticket against the record.
“Our process is fairly simple and customer service oriented. If mismatches occur, the first review is by Duncan Solutions, and if they can correct the error that caused the mismatch, they will do so,” says Carolyn Quetsch, fiscal administrator at Fairfax County Department of Tax Administration.
“The second layer of mismatch review is sent to the Parking Enforcement Division at Fairfax County Police. The mismatches are then reviewed and researched. What can be corrected is corrected. For example, an officer wrote MERC for Mercedes, but it was entered as a Mercury. Once researched, the ticket can be corrected to Mercedes and there is no longer a mismatch issue with that ticket. If the error resulting in the mismatch cannot be determined, then the ticket is voided,” she says.
Quetsch tells WTOP that mismatches do not occur often. When they do, it happens because the ticket is handwritten. But if there’s any doubt, Fairfax County prefers to void the ticket.
“We all strive to get it right the first time, but if there are errors, we do our best to solve them. If they cannot be solved, the tickets will be voided so people are treated fairly,” says Quetsch.
But Babers says she believes the comparison to these jurisdictions is unfair.
“I shouldn’t have adjudication. Nobody should have adjudication, so that we would not have this confusion that you and everyone else have. In those jurisdictions, it’s the ticket issuer that’s pulling that information,” she says.
Edwards says Babers is passing the buck elsewhere.
“The director is playing a completely hands-off, not-my-fault, can’t-do-anything, sorry, gotta-go-to-lunch attitude toward real issues with real people,” he says.
D.C. lawmakers to fix this problem
D.C. Council Member Mary Cheh, who oversees the parking system, agrees there is a problem. She assisted WTOP Ticketbuster regarding the Edwards ticket, and that helped her see the problem up close.
“The real aim should be to head off at the pass anything that’s erroneous so that you don’t even get the ticket. Why should you have to go through that hassle?” says Cheh.
She tells WTOP that she will introduce an amendment to the Traffic Adjudication Amendment Act that would require D.C. DMV to pull make and model from other states and take judicial notice of any mismatches.
Her staff has communicated with Montgomery and Fairfax to discuss their safeguards and come up with similar ones for the District.
Cheh hopes to introduce the amendment in early May.
“I’m very pleased that Ms. Cheh is taking an interest in these issues. I think she’s trying her best to fix the fraud that goes on in the District. Currently, I see no evidence that the department leaders, particularly at the DMV, give a damn about whether or not their organization runs well,” says Edwards.
If you’re a victim, what can you do?
Until the D.C. Council fixes the problem, it’s up to drivers to take the initiative when they receive an erroneous delinquency notice in the mail. Time is important because the statute of limitations to challenge the ticket is 60 days, and the delinquency notice will arrive in about 35 to 40 days. The ticket fine will have also doubled.
Barbara O’Meara learned this lesson when she opened up her mailbox. She will go from her Fairfax County home into the D.C. DMV this week to fight her case.
DMV recommends drivers provide a copy of the vehicle registration. If the make and model on the registration do not match the information on the ticket, then it will be dismissed. If you do not provide your vehicle registration during the adjudication, then the DMV could rule against you, due to insufficient evidence.
“It’s irritating to think that I’m going to have to spend all my time and effort to prove that I didn’t do something that I didn’t do. It seems unfair,” says O’Meara. “I feel like the wrong person is having to jump through the hoops. It’s totally wrong. Absolutely wrong. The onus shouldn’t be on drivers to spend their own time to prove their innocence. My time is important and it’s valuable.”
DMV offers three ways to contest tickets — a walk-in hearing, a mail adjudication or an online adjudication. WTOP Ticketbuster has found that a walk-in hearing is the best option, with a mail adjudication also being reliable. WTOP has come across online adjudications in which documents did not load or attach properly, making the option less reliable.
If you choose mail adjudication, you should use delivery tracking on your package. It will create a paper trail that proves the DMV received your documents.
DC Code 50-2303.05 allows seven legal defenses to a parking ticket. For a defective ticket, the driver should assert the first of those defenses: “The respondent was not the owner or lessee of the cited vehicle at the time of the infraction.”
If you pick a walk-in hearing, the hearing examiner will make a decision on the spot. If you choose mail or online adjudication, be prepared to wait approximately five to six months for a decision.
“It’s simple: Before sending out the 30-day delinquency notice, make sure you have the right car,” says Pilkington.
“Someone should look at that and say, ‘Oh, the car that has a ticket is supposedly a Mercedes. That’s clearly not a Toyota. We should look into this before we just start sending tickets out.’ It’s just common sense: Don’t hassle random drivers who did nothing wrong,” adds Idol.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.