D.C. drivers hurt by tough interpretation of Va. offenses
By Mike DeBonis,
Yes, Tom Selden admits, he was speeding.
Maybe he wasn’t doing the 84 mph that a Hopewell, Va., sheriff’s deputy said he was doing, but yeah, he said — he was over the 70-mph limit on Interstate 295 southeast of Richmond.
The December citation was the first blemish on Selden’s driving record in more than a decade — no tickets, no accidents, no points. He signed the summons, kept on driving the family down to Hilton Head, and later mailed in the $230 fine.
“I considered getting a lawyer, but it just sort of rubs me the wrong way that you can hire a lawyer and get a traffic ticket wiped off your record,” Selden said. “I really didn’t think it was going to be a problem.”
It was, in fact, going to be a problem.
In May, the D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles wrote to inform Selden his driver’s license was being revoked. That speeding ticket, which included a reckless driving citation, was sufficient to pull Selden from behind the wheel for at least six months.
Selden, 54, is among a number of District residents with clean driving records who have lost their licenses in recent months after receiving relatively quotidian speeding tickets in Virginia. They have fallen into a legal Catch-22 created by the conflict between the commonwealth’s expansive definition of reckless driving and the District’s more narrow definition.
In Virginia, traveling “in excess of 80 miles per hour regardless of the applicable maximum speed limit” is reckless driving. That offense results in six points on a 24-point scale.
In the District, reckless driving involves traveling “carelessly and heedlessly in willful or wanton disregard of the rights or safety of others, or without due caution and circumspection and at a speed or in a manner so as to endanger or be likely to endanger any person or property.” The offense comes with 12 points on a 12-point scale — an automatic license revocation.
Lucinda Babers, director of the D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles, said a reckless speeding citation in Virginia is an “equivalent violation” to the District’s reckless driving, even if there is no “willful or wanton disregard of the rights or safety of others.”
That interpretation has ensnared at least a dozen D.C. residents who, like Selden, were cited for driving in the low 80s on 70-mph Virginia interstates in recent months. Several of them have hired lawyers and appealed to the District DMV. None has been successful.
The D.C. Council is expected to take up legislation in September that would recalibrate the consequences for these types of offenses, assessing three or six points, depending on the severity of the reckless driving charge.
Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), who introduced the bill, called the situation “ridiculous.” She said her staff examined laws in other jurisdictions and found the District’s reckless driving sanctions to be the most severe it found.
“It is a disproportionate response from the government and not fair to these drivers who are already paying the consequences in the ticketing state,” Cheh said.
Robert Haft, 59, was caught in March doing 81 mph on a 70-mph stretch of Interstate 95 in Sussex County, about 50 miles south of Richmond. His license was revoked in June, and he was barred from getting behind the wheel for at least six months.
“I’ve never had an accident or moving violation,” he said. “I’ve never gotten a point in the District — I’ve just never had anything.”
Eren Fry, 35, was caught in January doing 81 just north of the North Carolina border on I-95. “That was my first ticket,” he said. He lost his license in May.
Fry, Haft and Selden were ticketed on clear days during daylight hours. They thought they had incurred standard speeding tickets and waived their rights to contest the infractions. The District DMV has rejected their appeals.
The Catch-22 has been amplified by two developments in Virginia. The state raised the speed limit from 65 to 70 on more than half of its Interstate mileage in 2010, but the 80-mph reckless driving law remained in place. And whether state law requires or merely allows police to charge drivers exceeding 80 mph with reckless driving is a matter of ongoing debate.
Selden has enlisted an unlikely ally to get his license back — Hopewell Sheriff Greg Anderson, whose enthusiastic speeding enforcement has led some to call the city’s stretch of I-295 the “million-dollar mile.”
Anderson e-mailed Babers to explain that his deputies had no choice but to write reckless driving citations for 80-plus mph violations. Since then, he said, his city attorney has changed his interpretation of the law. Now, deputies are writing reckless-driving summonses only for those doing 90 mph or faster in the 70-mph zone.
“I think he’s really getting the short end of the stick here,” Anderson said of Selden.
Asked about circumstances under which a license would be revoked for motorists going 10 or 15 mph over the limit, the sheriff said it would be rare. “Oh, man, typically they really have to have a bad driving record,” he said.
Paul Hunt, a lawyer representing Selden, said the DMV’s reading of Virginia reckless-driving offenses changed at some point earlier this year, and it is within the agency’s discretion to change it back. But Babers has held fast to her interpretation. In letters to Fry and Selden, she cited the dramatic increase in stopping distances at high speeds.
“Driving 81 miles per hour is dangerous, not only to the well-being of the driver, but also to those around him or her in that the ability to maintain control is reduced the higher the speed of travel,” she wrote.
To change the interpretation, Babers said, “legislation would be necessary.”
Cheh had hoped to pass her legislative fix earlier this month, but the bill cannot move forward until a hearing is held Sept. 21.
In the meantime, Fry, Haft and Selden will continue coping with the inconveniences of life without cars.
Haft, a health-care executive who lives near Dupont Circle, said he’s been hailing taxis or finding others who can drive him and otherwise taking stock of his good fortune. “It’s inconvenient,” he said. “But there are many people who, if they can’t drive, they lose their job. At least I can take a cab.”
Selden has turned to a combination of Metro and bike commuting to get from his Chevy Chase home to his government job in Rockville. Not driving, he said, means spending less time with his kids and a heavier load for his wife. Summer vacation has been canceled, too, he said: “It’s a lot to have my wife do all the driving on long trips.”
Fry, a consultant who lives in Trinidad, said he hasn’t been terribly inconvenienced. Not yet, anyway. “My wife is due around Labor Day,” he said. “I’m going to want to drive for that.”