Rep. Charles Wilson (D-Tex.) paid a $25 fine yesterday after a hearing on charges that his 1979 Lincoln Continental struck another car on the Key Bridge last month.
Earlier in the day, police had charged Wilson with a more serious offense, failure to report an accident, only to find that that charge had been stricken from the books because of a change in the law 10 months ago.
Police officials said they are searching their files for cases in which people have been charged with the nonexistent offense, and plan to notify them that they can appeal their cases.
"We flat out made a mistake," said Capt. James Brunzos, head of the department's traffic division. "It's embarrassing."
Morris Taylor, an insurance examiner with the city's Department of Motor Vehicles, said that the mistake was made possible because the District's no-fault insurance law is in a "limbo" period. The first phase went into effect last November, and the second and final phase will be effective Oct. 1.
Brunzos said that he doesn't know how many people have been unfairly charged with the nonexistent offense, but estimated that the number is less than five. He said that the number charged with the offense in previous years has averaged six a year.
Wilson, 50, a six-term congressman from East Texas, was driving from Washington to his Arlington home when his car struck the rear of another car waiting at a red light on the Virginia end of the bridge, police said.
The accident caused major damage to the Mazda RX7, which belongs to Robert Reents, 22, a computer programmer from Arlington.
Wilson said in an interview yesterday that rain had impaired visibility that night and that he braked hard when he saw a car in front of him. His car spun out of control and it hit the side of the bridge, he said. "I didn't realize I hit him," Wilson said. "I backed off the bridge and drove home."
Wilson reported with his lawyer to the traffic division's office yesterday morning for an informal hearing on the accident. After the hearing, police charged Wilson with failing to report an accident, a misdemeanor that carried a $200 fine and five points levied on the offender's license by the city's Department of Motor Vehicles. Twelve points means automatic suspension of the license.
When police officers contacted the corporation counsel's office to process the charge, they were told that the charge had been stricken from the books last November, when the first stage of the city's no-fault insurance law went into effect. That law, which says that people involved in traffic accidents must seek payment for damage from their own insurance companies, goes fully into effect on Oct. 1.
Police then gave Wilson a ticket for the offense of "colliding" with another vehicle.