The Washington Post

D.C.’s top lawyer agrees: More ‘discretion’ needed on license revocations

Nathan finally injects a dose of common sense into the DMV’s handling of speeding violations. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

To recap: Dozens of D.C. residents with clean driving records have had their licenses revoked in D.C. after going as little as 11 mph over the speed limit on Virginia’s 70 mph highways. This is because some Commonwealth jurisdictions treat all speeding violations over 80 mph as “reckless driving,” and in the District, reckless driving is a much more serious offense that results in an automatic license revocation.

DMV Director Lucinda Babers and her agency’s lawyer held to the position that reckless driving in Virginia equals reckless driving in D.C., even though a plain reading of city statutes and regulations indicates that she has discretion to adjust that interpretation to match the driver’s out-of-state conduct to D.C.’s laws regarding that conduct.

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) asked Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan to weigh in last month. And, in a triumph for common sense, Nathan acknowledges in a letter dated Friday that “Virginia defines ‘reckless driving’ in a very different manner from the District,” and hence some discretion should be exercised.

He explains further:

While the Director was aware that she had some discretion in this situation, she used it sparingly because of ambiguities in the law. However, the Mayor and I have urged her to re-examine the cases where revocation has occurred in the past year and to follow procedures ... to ensure that a correct and just determination has been made in each case. She has graciously agreed to do so ...

Gracious, perhaps, but of limited comfort to the dozens of city residents who have been inconvenienced for months thanks to a transgression that had they lived anywhere else in America would have resulted in no more than a fine and a few points.

According to Nathan’s missive, Babers has now agreed to send letters to the affected drivers, inviting them to “demonstrate either through their submissions or at a hearing, without credible contradiction from authorities or records in Virginia,” that they were merely speeding rather than violating the District’s reckless driving standard — “willful or wanton disregard of the rights or safety of others, or without due caution and circumspection and at a speed or in a manner so as to endanger person or property.”

Meanwhile, the D.C. Council is moving forward Wednesday with emergency legislation from Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) that will address the issue by bringing the District’s reckless driving sanctions more in line with Virginia, Maryland and virtually every other state on the east coast.

Nathan said the bill is “a good first step” but requires “modifications for it to be fully effective in resolving this issue.” Cheh’s office said those concerns should not delay next week’s expected action.

Here’s Nathan’s letter in full:

Mike DeBonis covers Congress and national politics for The Washington Post. He previously covered D.C. politics and government from 2007 to 2015.


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