D.C. Council hears “jaw dropping” stories from Ticketbuster

WASHINGTON –District of Columbia council members heard story after story Friday from drivers who contacted WTOP Ticketbuster to complain about the city’s Department of Motor Vehicles.

Art Jaso testified in a hearing Feb. 28 about a $500 ticket he received in 2011 for having a clear plastic cover over his license plate. He challenged the ticket and told the DMV that it didn’t obscure his plate, showing speed camera tickets he received from D.C. as proof. A DMV hearing examiner still ruled him liable for the ticket. He appealed the ruling.

“I talked to a woman about my case. She apparently lost my letter and pertinent documents. She did state in an e-mail that it could take up to two years to get a decision on an appeal. It’s already well over that,” says Jaso.

Justin Johnson, who WTOP Ticketbuster profiled in January, told lawmakers about his case. Johnson was ticketed for having expired temporary tags. But Johnson had a bill of sale showing the tags had not expired, that the dealership had made a mistake.

“The woman on the other end of the line said there’s no statute of limitations at all. We can sit on your appeal for a decade,” says Johnson.

Christen Eliason contacted ABC7 On Your Side and WTOP Ticketbuster about a ticket for an expired meter, although she paid for it with ParkMobile. The Department of Public Works (DPW) dropped the ticket in July. She was supposed to get a refund for the money she paid to appeal the ticket within 2-3 months, but waited 6 months before getting her check.

“I provided my ParkMobile receipts as well as a copy of the ticket. I wrote memos explaining my reasoning. It just didn’t seem to be good enough,” says Eliason.

DMV Director Lucinda Babers testified later that Eliason sent the wrong type of receipt. Last year, WTOP Ticketbuster profiled Jeff Liang’s case, where DMV explained that drivers should submit a “Detailed Session Receipt.”

But while DMV provides directions to drivers for several types of tickets, DMV does not give specific instruction on ParkMobile cases.

Charles Haupt contacted WTOP Ticketbuster only a few weeks ago. Like many drivers contacting WTOP Ticketbuster, he received a notice for an outstanding ticket on a license plate that was his, but the other information was wrong. The notice said the car was a Ford, he drives a Nissan.

“I did everything that they asked. I filled out the online explanation, told them it was a Nissan Rogue, not a Ford. I sent a digital picture with a timestamp. I included a copy of my vehicle registration,” says Haupt.

“On June 15, 2012 I received a notice stating the hearing examiner has determined that I was liable. I sent 110-dollars for an appeal on June 22. DMV says I might have to wait up to three years for a decision. I come here out of frustration.”

AAA Mid-Atlantic John Townsend says these cases leave drivers with no faith in the system. He calls the red-tape and bureaucracy unacceptable.

“These drivers are caught up in these faceless, nameless bureaucracy of the DMV Traffic Adjudications branch. WTOP Ticketbuster and Ari Ashe have made a cottage industry of these horror stories. They are an embarrassment to the city and the citizens deserve better. Drivers are losing confidence that they can get a fair shake before the hearing examiner,” says Townsend.

Even DC Councilmember Mary Cheh, chair of the Committee on Transportation and the Environment, admitted the stories surprised her. She oversees the DMV, DPW, DDOT and other ticket writing agencies.

“Some of their stories are really jaw-dropping because they get caught up in this bureaucracy and can’t find their way out. We need to find a way to fix these situations where people seem to fall through the cracks. We need a safety valve at the DMV,” says Cheh.

DMV Director Lucinda Babers defended her agency. She says the process works for drivers and justice is served. But when asked about obvious errors, such as the recent Stephen Combs and Clare Pilkington cases, Babers told us that drivers must wait up to two years. She says it doesn’t unnecessary clog an already overtaxed appeals board.

“What you’re saying is, should we get preferential treatment for anybody that either you, Kris Van Cleave, or you, Ari Ashe, bring to our attention? Of course the answer should be no. Or else I’m going to tell all 300,000 people to contact Kris and Ari,” says Babers

On March 12, Cheh will mark-up the DMV Traffic Adjudication Amendment Act. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson and Councilmember Jim Graham introduced the bill to address many of the issues that WTOP Ticketbuster identified. A key provision would allow drivers to re-open cases when new overwhelming evidence would prove their innocence.

“Right now, the DMV says once you’re in the appeal stage, you cannot send in new evidence. You had your chance, you should’ve done that two steps ago. If they pass this bill, it would be very helpful because I could send the new evidence and make it simpler,” says driver Clare Pilkington.

Cases like Pilkington, Stephen Combs, or John Stanton would qualify for such a reconsideration. In each case, DMV told them that they would have to wait two years before the appeals board to receive a final decision. The ticket writing agencies ended up dismissing the Combs and Pilkington citations, admitting those tickets should not have been written.

“I’m confident we’ll be able to get it out of our committee in the spring, then the full council will likely take it up after the summer recess. I would hope it will get approved this fall,” says Cheh.

Babers says the DMV supports the bill as well.

“We have been working very closely with Cheh’s office. We just haven’t gotten it finalized because of nuances with how long would be the appeals process, how long would be the reconsideration process,” she says.

Cheh is also considering an ombudsman for the DMV. She believes the position would allow drivers with extraordinary cases to have an advocate on their side with the power to intervene. Townsend agrees the ombudsman idea is a good one.

“This ombudsman could decide on these cases in the crack, to be a referee. But the ombudsman needs to be independent. Although physically located at the DMV, this person needs to be independent and serve as a go-between,” says Townsend.

“That’s something I want to explore. We just have to figure out a way to do this. Just having another bureaucrat is not what I want. This person would be helpful in these cases that are so extraordinary. For example, when it’s not your car, you were never there, and you can establish this with documentation, yet a hearing examiner says you still have to pay,” says Cheh.

Cheh tells WTOP she plans to work with Babers and Townsend on the ombudsman proposal over the next several months.

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