Meet Kenny Johnson.
In February, he was driving with a friend to a funeral in North Carolina. While in southern Virginia, his companion got a little antsy and told Johnson to pick up the pace a little. A few minutes later, he was pulled over by an Emporia police officer and ticketed for doing 81 mph in a 70 mph zone.
Because the city of Emporia treats speeding offenses over 80 mph as “reckless driving,” as they are allowed to under Virginia law, the officer also cited him for that misdemeanor offense. It was his first ticket in 22 years.
Johnson lives in Ward 8, in the Congress Heights neighborhood near St. Elizabeths Hospital. He works in Georgetown, as a building engineer at Dumbarton Oaks. Since his license was revoked, he has had to ride a bike to and from his job — an 11-mile round trip.
Today, at a D.C. Council hearing on the DMV’s handling of cases like Johnson’s, several other D.C. drivers told of similar hardships.
One man, for instance, had to spend $1,100 hiring drivers to take him to his tutoring clients. Most shockingly, a Ward 4 woman described how she was pulled over and arrested last month on South Dakota Avenue NE after her license had been revoked without her knowledge. The woman, Tanisha Tolson, was arrested and taken to the Fourth District lockup while her car was impounded. She only later found out the DMV had revoked her license for a January speeding violation in Hanover County, Virginia.
”I got the handcuffs, I got the mug shot, I got the whole nine,” Tolson told me.
Looking on while these stories were told was DMV Director Lucinda Babers, who had signed the letters informing (or not informing, as the case may be) drivers that their licenses had been revoked.
Babers later explained how all this happened — that Virginia started sending her department a spate of “reckless driving” misdemeanors in addition to the usual speeding tickets. Under the interstate agreement governing traffic violations, traffic convictions are forwarded to a driver’s home jurisdiction so it can levy appropriate sanctions.
Babers revealed that in fiscal 2011 — that is, the year prior to Oct. 1, 2011 — Virginia sent D.C. no reckless driving offenses, none. Since then, the Commonwealth has sent 362 such violations, which the DMV duly and without exception translated into the District’s reckless driving sanctions, which are 12 demerit points and an automatic loss of license.
What was so infuriating about Babers’ testimony, and the position she’s held since I highlighted the practice nearly two months ago, has been her utter inability to appreciate that she has terribly inconvenienced numerous people through a policy that defies common sense to anyone who takes more than 20 seconds to think about it.
D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), who ran the hearing, repeatedly apologized to the drivers for what she called a “ridiculous” and “Kafkaesque” interpretation of the law. “I just can’t tell you how far from reasonable this interpretation is,” she told Babers, who did not apologize, or even offer regrets, really.
The whole affair has been, in a nutshell, what gives government bureaucrats a bad name. Here was a situation where the laws and regulations on the books demanded an unfair, capricious result — drivers with clean records losing their licenses over violations that would have resulted in no more than a fine and a few points anywhere else in the country — and yet the DMV never took a moment to consider what was happening or that it might have terrible consequences for the residents they serve.
In fact, Babers revealed she had received letters from as many as 70 drivers wondering why their licenses had been revoked for piddling speeding tickets. I saw some of the letters, and they laid out detailed and sophisticated arguments as to why revoking licenses under these scenarios was nonsensical. Yet, rather than (a) use the discretion she has under the law to change her interpretation, (b) seek guidance from legislators or the attorney general, or (c) seek any explanation as to why so many drivers were having this problem now when none had been affected the year prior, Babers chose to (d) keep sending letters revoking licenses until the attorney general and the D.C. Council ordered her to stop.
It’s particularly unfortunate, because I like the D.C. DMV, believe it or not. Over the past 15 years, Babers and her predecessors have made the agency increasingly citizen-friendly and convenient. People used to talk about four-hour waits to get their cars inspected on Half Street SW; in the past eight years, I’ve never waited more than a half-hour. And thanks to a full offering of online and mail-based services, I’ve never had to stand in line to renew my registration or license or otherwise handle any other auto-related issues. But it just takes one incident like this to renew those old, bad impressions.
The good news is that, thanks to a letter from the attorney general and an emergency D.C. Council bill, the DMV has now seen the light on reckless driving. At least two affected drivers — including Chevy Chase resident Tom Selden, whom I featured in my initial story on this — have gotten letters from Babers this week informing them that the revocations have been scrubbed from their records, replaced by the handful of points they admit they deserve.
Kenny Johnson, Tanisha Tolson and the rest have Babers’ promise that they’ll have their records similarly cleared soon. It’s a fair result for them and the dozens of city residents who had their lives needlessly complicated. It’s sad it took several months, several council members, several attorneys, the attorney general and, in some cases, hundreds of dollars in legal fees to get that result.