WTOP Ticketbuster series leads to DMV reform bill

WASHINGTON – With the WTOP Ticketbuster series chronicling stories of drivers running into red tape at the D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles, District lawmakers have introduced a bill to address the issues.

“I think the WTOP stories, which have highlighted a number of instances where people clearly were not guilty of what the ticket was about, has just given further evidence of why this legislation is needed,” said D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, a Democrat who introduced the bill along with Councilman Jim Graham, D-Ward 1.

The measure, known as the Traffic Adjudication Amendment Act of 2013, would allow drivers up to 24 months to file an appeal and present new evidence that could prove innocence. It also would allow the D.C. Office of Administrative Hearings, rather than the DMV Appeals Board, to hear the case and empower the group to overturn the original decision.

Drivers have come to WTOP to complain that the DMV is unfair, uneven and unfriendly to those fighting tickets. Mendelson acknowledged that while the DMV is supposed to provide justice, that’s not always what happens.

“There are instances where individuals get hung up in the adjudication process and even though they’re innocent of the ticket infraction, they still have to pay. Sometimes they have to pay double. It’s just fundamentally unfair,” he said.

Specifically, Mendelson referred to two WTOP cases that he believes demonstrate the problem.

First, there is the John Stanton case. In that story, Stanton, a federal employee, received a ticket for an infraction that allegedly occurred in Northeast D.C., even though his car was at Dulles International Airport. Stanton was overseas at the time on official government business for U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

The DMV ruled that Stanton did not qualify for a hearing because he responded 66 days later, instead of within the required 60 days. The DMV also asserted his receipts from the garage, airport and hotel were insufficient to prove his innocence.

In April 2013, Stanton found photographic evidence showing his car at Dulles during the date in question, but the DMV said it wouldn’t reverse its decision.

“If your car is parked at the Dulles garage and you receive a ticket, which is impossible, you ought to get that ticket dismissed. The fact that you missed a deadline, just telling the story annoys me,” Mendelson said.

Mendelson also is troubled about the Christopher Daignault case, in which a D.C. ticket writer himself received a ticket in November 2012 on plates he reported missing in September 2010.

He didn’t get the police report, but presented other evidence. The DMV ruled him liable after a 20-day continuance, then told WTOP the ruling would not be reversed after it turned over the report 67 days later.

“When he finds the police report, or some other evidence to show he didn’t have the tags, the ticket should be dismissed, even if it’s after 60 days,” Mendelson said.

D.C. Councilwoman Mary Cheh, who was initially reluctant to acknowledge a larger problem, now tells WTOP that there are issues the Ticketbuster series has identified.

“I think the issue is even broader. We have a number of instances where I think the hearing examiners are being inflexible to the point of unfairness of how they approach things,” said Cheh, D-Ward 3.

Cheh chairs the council’s Committee on Transportation and the Environment, which oversees the DMV and several ticket-writing agencies.

“The solution may not be legislative, it could be more oversight,” she said. “We need to find out what the protocols are there [at the DMV], how these (hearing examiners) are trained, what are their marching orders. Is their marching order, ‘Defeat any claim at all costs’?”

Cheh admitted the Ticketbuster series has identified cases where the improper outcome may have been reached.

“Perhaps we need a safety valve for the unusual cases, maybe that’ll be enough. I don’t know what the answer is. But there are cases where that safety valve may have been the thing to take us out of what is perceived to be, by the driver involved and the public itself, as being inherently unfair,” she said.

Cheh wouldn’t comment specifically on Mendelson’s bill, but agreed that fixing problems with ticket adjudication in D.C. is necessary.

She plans to hold committee hearings on the proposal in late September or early October.

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