Ticketbuster: Parked at a broken meter in D.C.? Confusion rules the day

WASHINGTON — When you park at a broken meter in the District of Columbia, what should you do? Can you report it broken and legally remain there? These questions confuse not only drivers, but also D.C. officials, a WTOP Ticketbuster investigation has found.

Ruben Stemple brought the issue to our attention after he received a ticket in April. He parked at a broken meter near Catholic University.

“I wanted to do the right thing and let the city know about it. So I called 311 and reported it broken. The person told me that I could park there for up to four hours, which was on the meter,” says Stemple.

WTOP Ticketbuster obtained a copy of the phone call to 311, which goes to the D.C. Office of Unified Communications (OUC). In the nearly three-minute call, Stemple gets a confirmation number after giving the meter number.

“And I’m OK to park here for up to four hours then?” he asks.

“Yeah, mmhmm,” responds the 311 operator.

A few hours later, Stemple received a ticket for parking at an expired meter. He challenged the ticket to the D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), which adjudicates all tickets in the city. Stemple provided the confirmation number, but still lost his case.

“I was frustrated when I lost. But I realized that it was my word against theirs, so I just ended up paying the ticket,” says Stemple.

But after WTOP Ticketbuster obtained a copy of the call, D.C. 311 agreed that they made an error.

“The customer service representative was incorrect in answering it yes. Your feedback on your experience is very much appreciated and we will use it to reinforce the importance of providing correct information. We have already addressed this issue with the employee you spoke with and we will use this unfortunate experience to remind all employees of the proper handling of calls related to broken meters,” OUC spokesman Wanda Gattison wrote in an email to Stemple.

Also, she contacted D.C. Department of Public Works Director William Howland to explain the error. DPW wrote the ticket to Stemple, unaware that he’d received bad information. Howland agreed to throw out the ticket because of the mitigating circumstances.

“I appreciate the 311 spokeswoman helping out and admitting they were wrong in this case. They took responsibility for what happened and made it right. I’m also pleased that the DPW Director helped out, even though he didn’t have to get rid of the ticket,” says Stemple.

This isn’t the first case where such a claim against 311 has been made. Retired naval officer Patrick LaFontant told WTOP in February that a similar thing happened to him. However, since DC 311 only keeps recordings up to 90 days, there was no way to prove that an operator gave him bad information about his broken meter.

OUC attorney Gregory Evans tells WTOP that if this happens to you, call D.C. 311 right away and ask for a supervisor. The supervisor can pull the call within 90 days and help fix a ticket if the incorrect information was provided.

“Approximately 85 percent of broken meter calls are handled by the broken meter hotline which requires no agent interaction. In FY13, agents handled approximately 15,000 broken meter calls and the broken meter hotline handled about 103,000 calls,” says Evans.

“Our agents were previously trained to advise callers that they may park in a space with a broken meter, but that the caller parked at his/her own risk and could possibly receive a ticket. In an effort to reduce misunderstandings, we have provided new guidance to our agents to advise callers that they cannot park in the space,” he adds.

Should you remain at a broken meter after reporting it?

The cases of Stemple and LaFontant highlight a very confusing and conflicting area of parking policy, one that even District officials don’t have a consistent policy on.

The general rule of thumb is that you should move, even if you report a broken meter to 311. However, Stemple believes that such a policy discourages drivers from reporting broken meters.

“Parking is difficult enough in D.C. You spend some time circling, find a meter, and it happens to be broken. There might not be another one for three or four blocks. Do you take your chances? I don’t know. I don’t know anymore,” Stemple says.

“There should be a reasonable reward for reporting it, where you get to park for the time limit on the meter itself. If I park at a broken meter and I’m busy having to move my car, then I’m not going to report it,” he adds.

But as WTOP Ticketbuster investigated the issue, it turned out the D.C. Department of Transportation (DDOT) and the DMV seemed to have conflicting information.

D.C. law allows a driver to fight a ticket under the defense that “the parking meter was inoperable or malfunctioned through no fault of the respondent.” However, the DMV will only grant such a defense if a technician independently concludes that the meter was, in fact, broken. Access to the records of the technician’s report are not generally provided to a driver, except through a public records request. DMV doesn’t provide those records in the decision either.

Other sources tell WTOP Ticketbuster that policies regarding broken meters are inconsistent and vary based on the officer.

DPW’s training manual instructs officers not to ticket for a broken meter immediately. However, it was a DPW officer who wrote a ticket to Stemple before the end of the time limit of the meter.

“Check the meter to verify that it is broken. Enter the tag number into your handheld computer and return at the end of the time limit. If the vehicle is still parked in the same spot at the end of the time limit, issue a Notice of Infraction,” the manual reads.

Meanwhile, a DDOT source tells WTOP Ticketbuster that there are no written policies handed out to their officers about broken meters. The source says whether a driver receives a ticket at a broken meter depends on the individual officer.

What does this mean for you?

If you park at a broken meter, move your vehicle — even if you report it to D.C. 311. If you don’t, you could receive a ticket.

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 the details of your case — along with documentation — to ticketbuster@wtop.com.

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