When the D.C. Council voted in January to decriminalize fare evasion on Metro’s trains and buses, it left a $50 fine as the only penalty.
But the District, unlike jurisdictions such as Arlington and Montgomery counties, doesn’t track whether people actually pay up, believing that doing so is Metro’s responsibility, city officials said.
Metro officials say they haven’t been checking either, contending that the District should be doing it.
And neither has plans to start.
“The fine is paid to the jurisdiction for a violation of law in the jurisdiction," Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said. "It is therefore in the jurisdiction’s interest to ensure it is collected.”
Mayor Muriel Bowser’s spokeswoman, LaToya Foster, countered that “fines are issued and collected by WMATA.”
While the uncertainty continues over whose responsibility it is to track fines, only a small portion of the fines issued by Metro police in D.C. are being paid, potentially costing the city hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Because nobody is keeping track, exactly how many citations have gone unpaid over the years is unknown. But according to Metro spokeswoman Sherri Ly, transit police issued 13,649 fare evasion citations in Washington between October 2017 and May 8 of this year, covering the city’s two most recent fiscal years. The typical fare evasion fine issued by transit police was $50 — even before decriminalization, which took effect May 3, lowered the maximum fine from $300 to $50, Stessel said.
The 13,649 tickets, in other words, represent about $682,450 in fines.
But Metro collected and gave the city only $115,772 in fare evasion fines during that period, said David Umansky, spokesman for the city’s chief financial officer. That represents just 17% of the likely total.
D.C. Auditor Kathleen Patterson said her office hasn’t looked at the issue lately. But, she said, “any time there are fines that have gone uncollected, that is an issue that needs addressing.”
Under a long-standing practice that neither the city nor Metro could explain, those who receive fare evasion citations in D.C. are supposed to send a check or money order to Metro, instead of directly to the city as done in other jurisdictions. Until recently, checks were supposed to be made out to the city treasurer. Now, they’re made out to D.C. Superior Court. Metro then sends the money to D.C.’s Office of Finance and Treasury.
But neither Metro nor the city could cite a regulation or agreement saying which agency is then supposed to track any unpaid fines. Metro simply sends the checks to the city, Ly and Umansky said. But Umansky said his office is responsible only for receiving the money and putting it into the right city account. The money used to go into D.C.'s general fund but now goes to the D.C. Superior Court’s crime victims compensation fund.
Metro’s Stessel said the city should be keeping track of whether fines are being paid, as other jurisdictions say they do.
Arlington County Board Chairman Christian Dorsey, who represents Virginia on Metro’s board, and Montgomery County spokesman Neil Greenberger agreed. Both said their counties track fines they receive because they, not Metro, ultimately get the money that’s collected. Dorsey added that he wouldn’t want Metro taking on the administrative responsibility anyway, since it doesn’t get the money.
Much more of the fines appear to be paid in Montgomery County, where Greenberger said an unpaid fine triggers a court summons. Between June 2018 and December 2019, Greenberger said, 412 of the 568 citations Metro police issued in Montgomery County for a variety of offenses were paid or otherwise closed, about 73% of the total.
An Arlington Court General District Court deputy clerk said unpaid fines there are flagged by its computer system and referred to the Department of Motor Vehicles, which can suspend an offender’s driver’s license. Dorsey could not immediately say what proportion of Metro citations in the county are being paid. Both counties penalize fare evasion only with a fine.
Umansky said his office believes tracking fines is a law enforcement responsibility. Under current city policies, the chief financial officer’s office doesn’t have the power to collect Metro fines anyway, he said. The office “has no legal authority to enforce the unpaid citations. It simply receives the money and then transfers it," he said.
The confusion comes amid uncertainty over Metro’s issuance of citations in the District after the D.C. Council overrode Bowser’s veto of the decriminalization bill in January. Metro Police Chief Ron Pavlik ordered a temporary halt to citations in May because he believed the new decriminalization law, as written, no longer gave transit police the authority to issue tickets, nor did it set up an appeals process.
The D.C. Council quickly passed an emergency bill clarifying that transit police do have the authority to issue tickets, but left Pavlik’s other concerns about the appeals process for the Bowser administration to figure out later.
Ly said Metro staff are examining the policy and legal issues around citations and will give a report to the WMATA board in July, but declined to say if it will clarify who is supposed to track whether the fines are paid.
D.C. Council member Jack Evans, D-Ward 2, one of Washington’s representatives on Metro’s board, was not available for comment, a spokesman said.
Council member Charles Allen, D-Ward 6, who championed decriminalization, said the issues will get sorted out. “Laws change frequently and agencies charged with enforcement adjust to those changes, so I fully expect any process for collecting fines to stabilize after more than one month of the new law being effective,” he said in a statement.