A wide-ranging law that streamlines the city's enforcement of business, health, building and zoning regulations took effect last fall but has not been implemented because the agency has yet to write the necessary rules.
The Civil Infractions Act establishes a new adjudication system with fines for violators ranging from insurance and horse meat sales persons, barbers, builders and dentists to landlords, optometrists, boxers and wrestlers. The fines can be paid within 15 days or protested before a hearing examiner in the city's Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.
The department has had limited enforcement choices: the suspension, denial, or revocation of a license, or criminal prosecution in D.C. Superior Court. Both are considered to be cumbersome and ineffective deterrents to violations, so city officials proposed the new law's quicker and clearer procedures.
Some City Council members have criticized the department for its slowness. "The lag time has just gone on and on," said council member Frank Smith (D-Ward 1). "They're waiting until the last minute to write the regulations."
Council member John Ray (D-At Large), chairman of the Committee on Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, is also concerned about the delay.
"John will probably raise some questions about it at today's budget hearing," said Ray's committee aide, Margaret Gentry. "There has been some frustration" regarding regulations that have not been written by the department, including rules implementing the "lemon law," to protect auto buyers, and the Employment Agency Licensing Act, Gentry said.
The council is holding a budget hearing today on Mayor Marion Barry's fiscal year 1987 budget request of $34 million for the department, which represents a $6 million increase from this fiscal year. Just under $2.3 million is allocated for the civil infractions office.
Artis Hampshire, chief of compliance for the regulatory affairs department, said she hopes that the new adjudication system will be operating sometime this fall.
"We must study every statute and every regulation that we enforce" before fines can be set, Hampshire said, explaining the delay.
Appearing before the City Council before passage of the act, department Director Carol B. Thompson noted that a civil adjudicatory body was suggested by the mayor to strengthen compliance with city housing codes. It will, however, encompass all the businesses regulated by the department.
The civil infractions office will eventually employ about 50 people, with a core of attorneys who will act as hearing examiners, Hampshire said. Overseeing the operation will be Erias Hyman, administrative law judge, and Cassandra Ogden, chief of the office of civil infractions. Hyman formerly worked as legislative counsel to the City Council, and before that as a chief of the legislation and opinions section of the corporation counsel's office, the city government's legal arm.
"We expect that the law will also increase the morale of the inspection staff," said Hampshire, who said she expects to have a quick, well-defined settlement system. In the past, Hampshire said, some violators have nonchalantly torn up freshly issued notices in the presence of inspectors.
With the new civil infractions law, the regulatory affairs department's 270 investigators will continue to inspect city businesses and professionals and to issue notices for violations, but the notices will carry fines. And like city traffic tickets, the fines will increase if unpaid.
"Under civil infractions, fines keep doubling, and [violators] end up in court," Hampshire said.
The Civil Infractions Act does not decriminalize violations, so the department still will be able to prosecute offenders through D.C. Superior Court. Court proceedings will be reserved for "the most egregious, recidivist violators," said Hampshire, who noted that though the agency has in the past successfully prosecuted cases in court, the process usually took 18 months.
In preparing the Civil Infractions Act, the department studied enforcement in 13 jurisdictions, including Los Angeles, Baltimore, New York, Montgomery County and Rockville, and found encouraging results with civil enforcement, according to city officials.
Hampshire could give only "ballpark numbers" for the caseload, saying that in one year inspectors might issue 440,000 violation notices. "In about one-third of these, they will pay the fine and correct the problem," and about 270,000 will result in hearings, she said.
Another preliminary estimate is on revenue: The system could bring in $10 million in fines in a year, Hampshire said.
In 1979, the city established an administrative court to settle traffic ticket disputes, which had been handled previously in Superior Court. Last year, nearly 100,000 tickets were contested, according to James McWilliams, chief of the Bureau of Traffic Adjudication.
Civil infractions court will handle the extremely diverse fields under the authority of the regulatory affairs department. "We have a favorite saying at community meetings," Hampshire said. "We like to point out that what we do touches your life every day, at least three times."