Beginning Tuesday, the District will become one of a handful of communities across the country where hearing examiners, instead of court judges, will decide most traffic violation cases.
As a result of the "decriminalization" of 95 percent of the city's traffic offenses, most foreign embassy employes, who formerly enjoyed diplomatic immunity from the city's traffic regulations, will face full prosecution for parking and minor moving violations.
The new system is part of the city's effort to improve the efficiency and effectiveneaa of traffic regulation enforcement. At the same time, the program will relieve the D.C. Superior Court of the burden of resolving thousands of traffic cases.
"We feel the new system will be more convenient for the public," said Douglas N. Schneider, director of the city's Department of Transportation, which will run the hearing examiner system.
"It will enable persons who want a hearing to explain special circumstances or their view of the matter in an informal setting without a long wait," Schneider said.
The new hearing examiner system will handle traffic tickets for illegal parking and minor moving violations issued as of Tuesday.
Motorists issued tickets before Tuesday who want to contest the charges must report to traffic court at Superior Court.
To help reduce confusion while both systems operate simultaneously, the city will issue a new style of traffic ticket as of Tuesday that will explain the new system in detail.
The Superior Court will retain jurisdiction over the most serious traffic violations, such as drunk driving, leaving the scene of an accident and reckless driving.
Last year, the Superior Court handled 115,000 traffic cases and motorists who wanted to contest charges often spent long hours in traffic court waiting for their case to be called before a judge.
Transportation Department officials estimate that the hearing examiners will take over about 70 percent of those cases.
The five hearing examiners, all of whom have law degrees, will have authority to impose fines and revoke or suspend driving permits.
Hearing rooms for the new system, called the "Administrative Adjudication Program," will be located at 601 Indiana Ave. NW. Transportation department officials said they hope many motorists will get a hearing on their case within 30 minutes of their arrival there.
The new program is the fourth and final phase of the city's three-month-old effort to tighten up enforcement of traffic regulations, which included increased ticketing, towing and "booting" of parking violators. A boot is a metal clamp, attacked to a car's front tire to immobilize the vehicle. Transportation employes "boot" cars when a motorist has accumulated four or more unpaid tickets.
Foreign embassy personnel -- many of whom have long been criticized for disregarding city traffic regulations -- are now subject to penalties for violations because of the new federal Diplomatic Relations Act. The act, which went into effect Jan. 1, limits civil and criminal immunity for many embassy personnel and their families.
As a result, when the city switches from criminal to civil penalties for parking and minor moving violations, on Tuesday about 13,000 embassy personnel will face full prosecution for such infractions. Ambassadors and other high-ranking diplomats will retail full immunity from prosecution.
U.S. State Department officials, concerned about possible reprisals by foreign governments against American embassies as a result of the city's new policy, have asked city officials to use "discretion" in imposing traffic sanctions against embassy workers here.