The D.C. Council yesterday voted to repeal a longstanding law allowing police officers to arrest the drivers of vehicles whose registration had lapsed. This followed the latest of several media reports on the issue, which in this case prompted Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) to publicly call on city officials to change the policy.
To my knowledge, the sole public voice speaking out against the end of expired-tag arrests is Kristopher Baumann, outspoken leader of the city’s police officers’ union. He penned a provocative op-ed for Sunday’s Post arguing that (a) the arrest law enhances public safety and (b) the only reason city leaders are caving to Webb’s demands is because so many of them are under ethical scrutiny.
I’m not sure I buy point (b). It’s a fascinating argument, but the fact that city officials did nothing the last time the issue came up, more than a year ago, doesn’t prove much. In that case, WTOP and WTTG-TV news reports publicized the arrest of a Montgomery County woman in August 2010 — during the summer vacation peak, during the D.C. Council and congressional recesses and during a hotly contested mayoral campaign. In other words, politicos had other things to worry about. This year, when FoxNews.com resurrected the issue, not so much.
Point (a) is a better one.
Baumann makes a strong argument: This is a law that has taken criminals off the street, he explained in an interview. The scenario goes like this — a cop pulls over a motorist for expired tags and uses his or her discretion to make an arrest, which then opens the constitutional door to a search of the car, turning up drugs or guns or other bad stuff. End the arrests, Baumann argues, and you’ve given up a prime tool for beating bad guys.
Two issues here. First off, the D.C. police have yet to release statistics on the number of expired-tag arrests. We simply don’t know how many people are getting locked up, though Baumann said he suspects its “hundreds” per year. Police communications director Gwendolyn Crump hasn’t responded to an inquiry I sent earlier today about the stats; D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) personally asked Chief Cathy L. Lanier for the stats Monday, but they haven’t been provided yet.
So, long story short, we don’t really know what the situation is, but there may indeed be a public safety tradeoff here that wasn’t really discussed before the council acted Tuesday. As Baumann put it, “I can’t believe they voted on this without knowing how many arrests we’re talking about.”
Now it will almost certainly be discussed more as a permanent bill is considered, likely in a public hearing, but don’t expect the number of arrests to matter much in the public debate here. There is a genuine sense of fundamental unfairness in locking folks up for an offense often caused by the sorts of personal oversight we all make from time to time. And it’s meaningful that the recent uproars have been cued by the protests of sympathetic characters — moms, military veterans — not city residents driving in bad neighborhoods where police are likely more willing to use their discretionary arrest powers to search.
In other words, the law as written, might well be an invitation to racial profiling, as noted in today’s Post:
“Once they’re having an even-handed or all-areas-included application of a policy like this, right away we get an uproar,” said David A. Harris, a University of Pittsburgh law professor with expertise in racial profiling. “In the inner city, there’s a much higher chance that somebody’s going to be arrested. Those people tend to be people that the rest of us don’t listen to or hear from a lot. They are not people of status; they are not people who have access to the media; they are not people who have access to counsel right way, and because of that their voices are not heard.”
Harris, who lived on Capitol Hill during the 1990s, described the District as a city of enclaves in which police operated differently.
“Having a rule that you can arrest anybody anytime their tag is expired, in my experience, is much more likely to be used in areas like Southeast, like Anacostia, than it is in upper Northwest,” he said. “Police operate with a greater sense of impunity in areas like Southeast because you’re not going to run into people who can make a lot of trouble if you arrest them, whereas in Northwest D.C., who knows who you might be arresting if you get somebody with an expired tag?”
Earlier this week, I spoke to a bona fide D.C. resident, Sherman Pittman, who was arrested for expired tags in 1999. He waged a lawsuit in federal and local courts claiming profiling by the police department for nearly three years before his case was finally dismissed. His case was every bit as egregious as those we’re hearing about today, but it didn’t gain notice at the time for one reason or another.
So if the stats confirm that most expired-tag arrestees aren’t just like the folks we’ve been hearing about in the news lately, don’t expect that fact to necessarily win a lot of sympathy on the D.C. Council. If it’s not okay for white folks from Maryland and Virginia, why should it be okay for everyone else?