Filching Metro Fare in Virginia Gets Free Trip to Court

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 16, 2005

Among the crimes considered yesterday in Arlington County Courthouse Room 3A were drug possession, reckless driving and grand larceny. Some defendants entered the courtroom from the side door dressed in standard-issue blue uniforms from the detention center next door.

David S. Park, 26, entered from the back, dressed -- for his first arraignment -- in a tie and shoes shiny enough to match the gleaming wooden benches.

The charge against him: failure to pay his fare on the Metro.

Park was one of a group of riders who, after a two-second slip through a fare gate, ended up scheduled for a day in court. Instead of receiving a citation to pay a fine, as he would have in the District or Maryland, Park, who was at the Pentagon City Station, was issued a summons.

The recent graduate of Georgetown University pleaded guilty to his charge but offered a brief explanation in his defense: It was his first full week commuting on the Metro between his new apartment in Alexandria and his job at an international development organization near Dupont Circle.

It was rush hour. He did not know his Farecard had insufficient funds. While he was trying to figure out why it did not work in the fare gate, some people with SmarTrip cards crowded behind him and ended up pushing him through the gate.

Before he knew what had happened, an officer approached him, and he had a summons in his hand.

The judge canceled the fine, which could have been as much as $50 for a first offense, and sent Park to the clerk's office to pay court fees.

Afterward, Park surveyed the damage: $66 in court costs and a half-day lost from work. Park, who has a master's degree in public policy, analyzed the situation.

The ticket, he thought, was fair -- "Proof that the system was working," he said.

He wasn't so sure about the trip to the courthouse.

"In terms of maximizing public resources and the skills of the judge, I think it might be more useful for something that actually constitutes a criminal offense," he said.

Fare evasion is a criminal offense. Penalties, however, vary by jurisdiction. In Fairfax County, the fine is $100. Montgomery and Prince George's counties and Alexandria charge $50, and in Arlington, there is a sliding scale from $10 to $50, determined by the judge, said Sgt. Gregory Hanna Jr., patrol supervisor for the Metro Transit Police.

Hanna said Metro Transit Police have learned to watch out for a few common ways people evade paying Metro fares.

There's the "piggyback," which involves getting close enough to the person in front of you that you can pass through the gates together. Then there's the "SmarTrip bypass," in which a person simulates running the card over the reader, then either piggybacks or forces the gate open, hoping that no one's watching.

There's also a senior card or student card scam, in which a person uses a discounted card at unauthorized times or passes it off to someone who isn't qualified to use it.

"It takes a really good eye to see some of these things." Hanna said.

In any jurisdiction, a rider can go to court to contest a ticket. Only in Virginia is the person summoned to appear in court, Hanna said.

Because fare evasion is a not a jailable offense, judges will make a ruling in the defendant's absence but court fees can be tacked on, regardless.

Last year, citations for fare evasion on Metrorail and Metrobus reached a five-year high of 2,441, more than double the 1,126 given out in 2000, according to transit police. Transit officials said the increase could be explained in part by the growing number of passengers, up 18 percent in the same period.

This year, the numbers of citations for fare evasion are down. In the first six months of this year, 524 tickets were issued, compared with 645 for the same period last year.

Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company