D.C. lawmakers pass bill to address ticket woes

The D.C. Council passed the Traffic Adjudication Amendment Act, a response to our Ticketbuster series on ticket problems in D.C. The bill passed and now goes to the mayor\'s desk. (WTOP/Ari Ashe)

WASHINGTON — The D.C. City Council unanimously passed a bill Tuesday to change the way parking tickets are adjudicated and address several issues identified in the WTOP Ticketbuster series.

The Traffic Adjudication Amendment Act was introduced last summer to restore fairness to a process that some felt was lacking at the Department of Motor Vehicles, which adjudicates all tickets in D.C. The bill now goes to Mayor Vincent Gray.

“The reason I introduced the bill, first of all, has a lot to do with WTOP,” says Council Chairman Phil Mendelson. “This is about fairness, and too often there are cases where it doesn’t seem like justice is served.”

Two key amendments were added before final passage:

One would require the D.C. DMV to get the make and model on all delinquent tickets in Maryland and Virginia, then crosscheck them against the ticket to ensure accuracy. If the vehicle registration and ticket don’t match, the ticket will be dismissed.

A WTOP Ticketbuster investigation recently found that thousands of delinquency notices are mailed to innocent Maryland and Virginia drivers each year, many of whom never travel into the District of Columbia. The license plate on the notice matches the drivers’ tags, but the make and model are wrong.

“It must be extraordinarily frustrating and I certainly sympathize with the people who are caught up in this,” says D.C. Council Member Mary Cheh. “The only thing I can say is that I’m sorry and we’re going to work out the situations that are still pending. But I hope when the bill is finally enacted that this won’t happen again.”

Mendelson says he wasn’t surprised at our findings either.

“There are so many instances where someone gets a ticket and it’s so clearly not for their vehicle. The DMV has been blind to that,” he says. “If you’re responsible, you should pay your fine. But the government shouldn’t be so hungry for the money that it couldn’t care less whether it holds the right person responsible.”

A second amendment would add an ombudsman, who would be part of the D.C. DMV but report to the Council. AAA Mid-Atlantic endorsed this measure, saying it will help drivers who seem to get caught in the red tape. The ombudsman wouldn’t replace the hearing examiner, but would be a last resort for people who can’t seem to get answers or direction.

“Sometimes drivers get caught in these arbitrary approaches, this sort of unending loop,” says Cheh, who has introduced a bill of her own to further revamp the ticketing process in the District. “There needs to be a person, not only to help, but just to explain what’s happening and what your options are. Someone to help clear up any confusion. What they won’t have the authority to do is override decisions. But the ombudsman will be able to look into things, offer suggestions, and make recommendations to the DMV and D.C. City Council.”

Some have questioned whether an ombudsman will be effective, or whether DMV Director Lucinda Babers, DMV Administrator Wanda Butler and Chief Hearing Examiner Cassandra Claytor will be receptive to an ombudsman and the recommendations from that office. Cheh says it’s an evolving process and she’ll closely watch to make sure the ombudsman is getting the proper support.

Other provisions in the bill would allow drivers to reopen their cases with new evidence that would prove their innocence. It would also require the DMV to provide a detailed explanation on why a driver was found liable for a ticket. Hearing examiners often mail out a simple form letter that doesn’t address the issues the driver brought up about the ticket.

Babers is embracing the Traffic Adjudication Amendment Act, which she acknowledges will fix some of the issues that she believes cause problems.

“I’m not opposed to it because then it would be the law and we would be in compliance with the law. Right now, these measures aren’t in the statutes and regulations,” says Babers.

Mayor Gray has indicated he will likely sign the bill. Then it goes to Congress for a final review before becoming law.

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