The District of Columbia government has failed to collect at least $200,000 in parking and traffic fines over the last 15 months because more than 5,000 personal and corporate checks written to pay the fines have bounced.
The D.C. Department of Transportation, charged with enforcing the city's parking program, has made little or no effort otherwise to collect the money, and for months, most of the checks have been crudely filed in a cardboard box in a back-room department office.
Unlike some other jurisdictions, the District considers such fines paid as soon as the checks are logged in, without waiting for them to clear the banks on which they were drawn.
An examination of 5,329 bad checks by The Washington Post indicated that thousands of motorists had written checks from closed accounts, checking accounts with insufficient funds or merely stopped payment on checks shortly after they were written.
As a result, the motorists were able to obtain a clear record, recover booted or towed vehicles and in some instances obtain annual auto tags without really paying the fines or fees.
Checks from a broad cross-section of city, suburban and out-of-town residents -- including lawyers, physicians, journalists and at least one congressman -- were among those obtained by The Post. The checks ranged from $5 to more than $600 each. One individual had written 11 checks over several months.
Officials in the department's bureau of traffic adjudication were unable to say last week how many checks have bounced altogether or whether there are still more bad checks stored elsewhere. "We don't know and I can't guarantee anything," one official said.
James D. McWilliams, director of the bureau, said the bad checks were shunted aside and little effort made to collect on them while the bureau, established in February 1979, was trying to organize itself. "We haven't had anyone working on it regularly," McWilliams said.
Clerks at the department said only a smattering of letters had been sent to the addresses on the bad checks, and no one in the department knew how many responses had been received.
"The reason nothing has been done is because no one has made any effort to do anything about it," said one transportation official.
The failure to collect on bad checks is only one of several problems plaguing the city's parking program, whose stepped-up enforcement program of the past few years has angered many motorists with higher fines and more frequent "boots," tows and tickets:
More than $30 million in parking tickets have been issued and not collected by the city since 1975 because persons have moved, died or changed their names. Only about one-third of that amount -- $10 million -- is now considered collectable, according to John Brophy, director of the DOT bureau of parking and enforcement.
A recent check by DOT officials indicated that cashiers have been routinely charging too little or too much for storage fees at the city's three impoundment lots. Department officials said the inaccurate charges were due to misreading of the fee chart by cashiers.
Since March the city has stopped booting cars with Maryland license tags. Maryland issued new tags to motorists then, and the District now has no way of cross-checking the old tags that have outstanding tickets with the new tag numbers. DOT officials hope to work out a cross-reference system within the next few months.
Much of the work now done by the adjudication bureau was previsouly under the auspices of the D.C. Superior Court.
However, city officials decided to decriminalize most traffic offenses and to implement a civilian hearing procedure. The move was designed to remove the unwieldy traffic violations process from the court system and improve efficiency.
Moreover, as the city government has found itself in an ever-tightening pinch for cash, it has looked to even stiffer parking fines as a means of raising additional revenue, as well as discouraging traffic violations and the use of automobiles.
The 5,329 bad checks have a face value of $184,344. But officials said many of the fines could be twice as high in instances were bad checks had been used to pay fines that would have doubled if paid after 15 days. The city would also be payable an additional $26,645 because a $5 per check fee is usually assessed when checks bounce.
The problem of noncollection of bad checks was not as serious, officials said, when traffic adjudication was handled by the D.C. Superior Court. Warrants could be issued when tickets were not paid or when checks bounced. "Back then you could threaten them with arrest." said Lee Hurwitz, a transportation official who was recently assigned to review the department's revenue operations.
When the District set up its civilian adjudication system in 1979, it used that of New York City as a model. However, in New York, a motorists's record is not cleared until his check has cleared the bank, according to a spokesman for the New York City parking violations bureau.
Traffic violators here are allowed to use personal and corporate checks when paying more fines. If those checks are twice returned to the city treasurer, the bureau is supposed to send a form letter asking for payment with a valid check plus a $5 bad check fee.
But ever since the bureau opened, no one has been assigned that task on a regular basis. Some letters have gone out, and some persons interviewed by reporters yesterday said that they had received notice and intended to make proper payment.
Transportation officials said that if the bad check records are ever straightened out, they will attempt to reenter the traffic violations into the computerized drivers' records log. But, they concede, a bureaucratic nightmare awaits that effort -- many of the checks do not have ticket numbers on them.
The department has been able to hire two collection agencies to go after unpaid tickets. The firms will be able to keep between 32 and 45 cents of every dollar they collect.
But, one official said privately, those firms have not been instructed to go after bad-check writers because the department's records are so shoddy that proper directions on whom to pursue could not be given to the firms.
In a March 6, 1979 memorandum, McWilliams informed cashiers that a "Bad Check List," at that time consisting of 15 names, would be established. ""Before accepting any checks, scan the list to be sure the person's name does not appear. If it does, explain why you cannot accept that personal check," the memo reads.
On March 16, McWilliams wrote another memo to cashiers after encountering problems with the kinds of checks being accepted.
"We have already had several checks returned that were written on plain paper, without even the name of the bank or address of the person writing the check," the memo reads. "This will not be tolerated."
Apparently, however, the bad checks list was ineffective. Among the checks examined by The Washington Post were numerous examples of several bad checks written by the same person.
The parking enforcement program is expected to collect $21 million this year. Through March, $8 million had been taken it, according to Brophy.
The city issues about 100,000 tickets a month and collects $70,000 to $80,000 from motorists each day. About 200 cars are towed and another 100 booted each day.