When Tom Koutsoumpas, a Georgetown University law student, went downtown last month to challenge a parking ticket, he wondered if his visit would resemble his last one in 1978.
"The whole thing took me two days! It was a nightmare," said Koutsoumpas, recalling his experience at D.C. Superior Court.
But this time, Koutsoumpas was pleasantly surprised. Although he went during lunchtime, "there were about five or six people ahead of me and I was in and out within an hour," he said smiling.
Five years ago, the District took all but the most serious traffic offenses out the hands of D.C. Superior Court judges and gave them to a group of hearing officers. City government officials promised citizens who wanted to protest tickets that they would be able to walk in without an appointment, get a hearing promptly and leave with a decision.
The noncourt traffic adjudication system, one of the first of its kind in the country, appears to be working as promised.
"I believe the greatest improvement we have brought is the opportunity for thousands of people to walk off the street and contest their ticket immediately," said James McWilliams, chief of the bureau of traffic adjudication. "That was not possible before."
Instead of going to court and spending hours or days, citizens who want to fight a ticket now go to the third floor of 1111 E St. NW, a building that formerly housed the Perpetual Bank.
They are then directed to one of four carpeted hearing rooms depending on their type of case.
In one room, an examiner hears disputes involving taxi drivers and their customers. In a second room are hearings for citizens who have accumulated several traffic tickets and a third is for persons who want to contest a single ticket. Seventy percent of the cases fall into these categories and are handled on a walk-in basis.
The fourth room is for serious offenses such as running a red light. These cases cannot be heard on a walk-in basis because a police officer has issued the citation. These cases are scheduled in advance so that the police officer can be present.
A hearing examiner listens to each case, then issues a decision that can range from dismissing a ticket, reducing a fine or letting the ticket stand.
Even at peak times, such as lunch, the whole process is usually over within an hour.
But the system emphasizes fairness as well was speed, said Robert Thompson, the acting administrator for most transportation issues in the Public Works Department.
"In many cases, experience at a hearing is the first contact someone has with government. We want to maintain respect for the government by ensuring that the process is fair. I don't want examiners to think in terms of percentages or quotas. If they feel that 20 cases should be dismissed, then 20 cases will be dismissed. If 20 cases should be upheld, then 20 will be upheld. Everyone won't always be satisfied with the decisions, but we think that they will respect the hearing as a fair one."
When the new system was begun, about 100 people showed up daily to contest their tickets. There were then six full-time hearing examiners, McWilliams said.
Today, more than 300 people walk through the hearing rooms daily seeking justice or sympathy from five full-time and four part-time hearing examiners.
The system has a $600,000 budget this fiscal year.
There is no typical ticket fighter. One well-dressed nervous man with horn-rimmed glasses, stuttered through his explanation for why he should not have received a ticket for parking in the wrong space in a lot near his Georgetown apartment building. He fumbled furiously with the crumpled remains of a snapshot showing the parking space he had rented, as he made his case.
The examiner listened then ruled that the ticket stood.
Following him was a woman dressed in leather jacket and pants, who worked for a messenger service. She shook her finger at the examiner and loudly claimed that the fire hydrant next to which she had parked her motorcycle had been broken for years.
"It should have been taken away long ago," she said. "It bugs pedestrians and frustrates motorists."
The examiner cocked one brow, ruled that the ticket stood and advised the woman to report broken hydrants in the future rather than park in front of them.
The nine examiners include six women and three men. All are law school graduates and city residents.
They must take a three-month training program that includes participating in mock traffic hearings and learning the city's traffic enforcement system.
They go along with the parking enforcement aides who issue tickets, the crews that affix metal boots to cars belonging to chronic nonpayers of tickets and the crews that put up traffic control signs.
Through the years, McWilliams said, he has tried to fine-tune the system in response to suggestions from residents.
"The idea of providing for a one ticket walk-in hearing room, for example, was proposed by a group of citizens who thought it unfair that they wait behind others who had several violations to contest," he said.