The 45-year-old federal scientist handcuffed and jailed for chewing a PayDay candy bar in a Metro station appeared in court yesterday and said her case hasn't stopped Transit Police from making controversial arrests.
Stephanie Willett, whose case was to continue today in D.C. Superior Court, said the national publicity sparked by her arrest did not cause the kind of restraint she had hoped.
"My whole reason for raising this issue was not to get into a long legal battle with Metro," said Willett, who represented herself before Magistrate Judge Richard H. Ringell yesterday and did not enter a plea. "I wanted something to be done with the way Metro police officers have conducted themselves. I want Metro to do better."
Willett pointed to the September arrest and jailing of Sakinah Aaron, 23, who was talking loudly on her cell phone in the bus area at the Wheaton Metro station. "I would think that within Metro there would be some directives -- 'Listen, this is how we need to conduct ourselves.' But it doesn't seem that memo has gone out."
Yesterday, however, Metro directors met behind closed doors to discuss whether Transit Police were overreacting to minor infractions. And Transit Police Chief Polly Hanson said she was open to trying to find other ways to stop passengers from violating rules. "I want to talk to our customers and hear what they have to say," Hanson said. "I don't want to stand still and look like we're just defensive or blindly justifying people's actions."
Hanson said she found the controversy generated by the arrests "personally disheartening."
Tarifah Coaxum, a spokeswoman for the District's Office of the Attorney General, said prosecutors will decide today how to proceed with Willett's case. Willett said last night that she hasn't figured out whether to appeal for a trial or to forfeit that right and decline to enter a plea in the misdemeanor case. That would end the case with a $10 fine she has already paid.
Willett, a grandmother who works at the Environmental Protection Agency, was eating a PayDay on July 16 while riding the escalator from 11th Street NW into the Metro Center Station. Metro Transit Police officer Cherrail Curry-Hagler was riding up.
The officer warned Willett to finish the candy before entering the station because eating or drinking in the Metro system is illegal.
Willett nodded, kept chewing the peanut-and-caramel bar and stuffed the last bit into her mouth before throwing the wrapper into the trash can near the station manager's kiosk, according to both Willett and Curry-Hagler.
Curry-Hagler turned around and followed Willett into the station. Moments after making a remark to the officer, Willett said, she was searched, handcuffed and arrested for chewing the last bite of her candy bar after she passed through the fare gates. She was released several hours later after paying the $10 fine.
Willett has said she was being unfairly punished because she made fun of the police officer after Curry-Hagler issued a second warning before the arrest. "Why don't you go and take care of some real crime?" Willett said she told the officer while still swallowing the PayDay bar as she rode a second escalator to catch her Orange Line train home.
Transit Police Deputy Chief Timothy Gronau acknowledged yesterday that officers are evaluated on a point system that assigns a value to every arrest made and ticket written. Annual performance evaluations are based on points earned, he said. But he dismissed the suggestion that officers might be quick to write citations or make arrests simply to get a better evaluation.
Metro has come under fire for what some have considered to be extreme enforcement of its rules. The best-known example was in 2000, when a Transit Police officer handcuffed a 12-year-old girl for eating a single french fry on a subway platform. A federal judge later said the police were "foolish" to arrest the girl but ruled that Metro did not violate her constitutional rights.