D.C. police officers are driving around the city in scores of department vehicles that are unregistered, while many other marked and unmarked patrol cars have expired inspection stickers--each a violation of the law.

Police officers in the city for years have been subject to tickets, on both marked and unmarked patrol cars, and the department has procedures in place to determine whether the individual or the agency pays for the infraction.

But many officers who are ordered to pay tickets apparently have not been doing so. The result is the same as if any other resident fails to settle accounts with the Department of Motor Vehicles: Vehicles cannot be registered, and inspections can't be made.

At least 173 of the department's unmarked fleet--about 36 percent--have expired registration. Dozens of other unmarked and marked patrol cars have outdated inspection stickers, some going back to 1997.

"Certainly it's against the law, and I don't condone it," said Tom Burse, the agency's business services director, who also oversees fleet management. "Am I surprised? No."

The department has no system in place to track the number of vehicles with valid inspection stickers, Burse said. He added that fleet services were privatized Nov. 1, and that the change should help eliminate the problem.

The unregistered and uninspected vehicles can be found driving down District streets and parked outside the mayor's office. Just steps away from police headquarters downtown at Third Street and Indiana Avenue NW yesterday, at least a dozen parked police vehicles--marked and unmarked--had expired inspection stickers.

There was the white Dodge with an inspection sticker that expired in September 1997. Burse examined the car, then questioned whether it was an agency vehicle. A reporter pointed out the registration card displayed in the windshield. There was no doubt about ownership: "Metropolitan Police Department, IAD"--Internal Affairs Division.

"Damn," he said.

Next to the Dodge was a black Ford Crown Victoria with a July 1999 expiration date on its inspection sticker. A few cars down was an auto belonging to the bank, hotel and financial crime unit in the Special Investigations Division. Its inspection sticker expired last month. Across the street was a blue van with police department license plates but no inspection sticker.

"I didn't know there were that many in front of headquarters," Burse said, shaking his head. "It's something that we've got to fix."

Robert Rose, the department's fleet services manager, attributed the agency's inability to keep inspections current to a shortage of mechanics.

"We were able to only take care of a certain number of cars," Rose said. "So some stickers expired."

But Burse blamed officers for not ensuring that all 1,192 vehicles were properly inspected.

"Every day they get in their car, they're supposed to do" an inspection, Burse said. "Making sure the stickers are valid and on the car is the responsibility of the people driving the vehicle."

Motorists who are stopped in the District for failure to register a vehicle receive a $100 fine. An expired inspection sticker is $50. D.C. police typically issue the tickets. Department of Motor Vehicles officials said D.C. police doled out 310,000 tickets and moving violations last year. The total number of tickets police issued to motorists with unregistered vehicles or expired inspection stickers was not available.

Seventy of the unregistered police department vehicles are assigned to the seven police districts, Rose said. The remaining 103 are assigned to other department units, he said.

Wanda Butler, the DMV's traffic adjudication services administrator, said officers are required to pay all parking tickets. The department is responsible for vehicle-based violations, such as expired tags.

Assistant Chief Ronald Monroe, who oversees the 2nd and 4th districts, covering upper Northwest Washington, Georgetown and part of downtown, said he was stunned to learn that 15 of the vehicles in his two districts weren't registered.

"I honestly thought I had none," Monroe said. "If I've got 15, that's too many. We clearly have to do better."

Assistant Chiefs William McManus, who is in charge of the 1st, 3rd and 5th districts, covering most of downtown, Capitol Hill and most of Northeast, and Michael Fitzgerald, who oversees the 6th and 7th districts, south and east of the Anacostia River, did not return telephone calls yesterday seeking comment. McManus has 32 unregistered vehicles, Fitzgerald 23, records show.

Monroe said officers are responsible for paying parking tickets, but he questioned the DMV's refusal to register police cars until tickets are paid.

"It's disconcerting that one city government agency says they won't give tags to another city agency," Monroe said. "There has to be some way of resolving this other than not issuing good tags to the cars."

The DMV's Butler said that the officers' outstanding tickets also mean thousands of dollars in lost revenue.

"This is revenue for the city that's not being collected," Butler said. "I'm not sure what the problem is with getting them in compliance."

The DMV's policy is not to register a vehicle until outstanding tickets are paid, and the police department is no exception, Butler said.

"They have to pay them," Butler said. "There's not going to be a dismissal. That's the problem the citizenry has with the District government--that there's a double standard."

Police Cars Unregistered

About 36 percent of the District's unmarked police cars have an expired registration.

Number of unmarked D.C. police cars with expired registration, by police district:

District 1 3

District 2 7

District 3 15

District 4 8

District 5 14

District 6 13

District 7 10

Expired registration on unmarked cars assigned to other police units: 103

Total: 173

SOURCE: Metropolitian Police Department

CAPTION: A car with D.C. police tags and an expired inspection sticker sits near headquarters.