The long arm of the law reached out and grabbed Rashika O'Brien and, even though she is only 8 years old, the wheels of justice ground slowly for seven months toward a day when she would have to pay for her crime.
The charge: operating a vehicle without a permit.
The possible penalty: a $300 fine and 90 days in jail.
Rashika's troubles began last July when she was ticketed for riding a two-wheeled cart -- the kind of hand truck used for moving furniture -- on the street outside her apartment building in Southeast Washington.
Her troubles finally ended last week when her case was dismissed because prosecutors said they mistook the "7" in her birthdate -- 1976 -- for a "2," which would have made her 58 years old.
The third-grader's brush with law came after she fell off the cart and her mother, Gloria Tucker, a clerk at Sousa High School, took Rashika to Greater Southeast Community Hospital for treatment.
While waiting in the hospital's X-ray room, Tucker said, she and her daughter were approached by two police officers from the 7th District "who started asking all these questions."
Tucker explained what had happened with her daughter and the cart and "that's when they told me it's a moving violation," she said.
"I thought they were kidding," Tucker said, when one of the officers asked: "You want me to give her a ticket?"
"But then I thought about it and said, 'Go ahead and write the ticket.' That way if she's ever playing in the street again, she'll be scared. I thought it was a joke."
Tucker said one of the officers wrote out the ticket, and Rashika, who received a few scratches in the fall, sat up in her hospital bed and signed it in a rambling child's print.
That was the end of that, or so Tucker said she thought. But prosecutors at the D.C. corporation counsel's office saw things differently, and on Sept. 17 they filed a formal complaint against Rashika O'Brien, charging her with operating the hand truck without a permit.
A court hearing commissioner issued a judicial summons ordering Rashika to appear in D.C. Superior Court in November. According to the court file, the envelope bearing the summons was returned unclaimed, and Tucker said two police officers visited their home last month with a new summons to appear in court Jan. 17.
Sgt. John Cummings, who was the 7th District patrol supervisor the day Rashika was ticketed, said he was as surprised as Tucker had been to learn that the city was cracking down on the 8-year-old.
"I find it hard to believe that it went that far," Cummings said. "It happened, there's no question about that. I took the ticket [from the officer] that night." But officers usually do not file such charges against children, he said.
"The officer was used by the mother to discipline the child," said Cummings, who insisted that it was Tucker's idea to issue the ticket. "It was one of these, 'If you don't do what I tell you, he's going to take you away and lock you up!' "
"It's not uncommon for an officer to write a ticket to scare a child. But usually you write a ticket and then void it later," he said. "Personally, I would go with a phony ticket."
Police spokesman Joe Gentile said he has never heard of officers doing such a thing.
"In my years in the department, I've never heard of a policy for an officer to issue a ticket to scare a child," Gentile said. "A ticket is an official document. No action is going to be taken against an 8-year-old."
Gentile said that unlike in Rashika O'Brien's case, traffic tickets involving children are normally marked "juvenile" and handled through the department's juvenile branch.
Tucker said Rashika was "scared" when they arrived in court last Thursday for her daughter's hearing. "She asked me where did she have to go and what did she have to say."
But after waiting more than two hours for the case to be called in traffic court, and then checking with the clerk's office, they learned that the city had dismissed the charge a week earlier.
A spokeswoman for D.C. Mayor Marion Barry explained the episode by saying that prosecutors in the corporation counsel's office reading the ticket mistook Rashika's birthdate.
"They really had no idea," said spokeswoman Kathy Williams.
Williams said the case was dismissed when the error was discovered. A court clerk, she said, was supposed to notify Rashika's mother that they did not need to come to court.
Still, Sgt. Cummings defended police involvement in the case.
"Technically, the vehicle was moving and there was an accident involving injury," he said. "So, technically, a report should have been written and the whole nine yards."