When a rider is cited for not paying the fare to board a bus or train in Northern Virginia, the ticket is more likely to be dropped in the courts than paid.

Only 278 of the 1,306 fare evasion citations handled by the Arlington, Fairfax and Alexandria general district courts between July 1, 2017, and June 30, 2019, were paid, according to court records. In those districts, roughly $38,000 in fare evasion fines have gone unpaid in the past two years.

Slightly fewer than half the cases, 619, are listed as past due, some by more than two years. And another 350 were dismissed by the court or dropped by prosecutors — oftentimes, Arlington County Chief Judge R. Frances O’Brien said, because officers didn’t show up to court hearings for tickets they wrote.

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The numbers include citations for unpaid fares on Metro and other public transit options like Fairfax Connector. They raise questions about what consequences there are — and should be — for not paying to ride at a time when D.C.'s fare evasion cases are mired in bureaucratic confusion, and Metro estimates it loses $36 million annually in unpaid fares across its regional system.

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Metro police officers in Virginia give out tickets for fare evasion, a civil offense, ranging from $25 to $250. The court is notified when a new ticket is produced, and a hearing date is set. Offenders are given 30 days to pay the ticket, though they can seek an extension. Money from the fines goes to the local jurisdiction’s general fund — not to the transit provider.

According to a spreadsheet prepared by the Supreme Court of Virginia, a significant proportion of fare evasion tickets from the past two years are going unpaid in the three Virginia courts DC Rider examined. In Arlington, 47% are past due, while 54% in Alexandria and 53% in Fairfax are delinquent. About a fifth of the tickets in Arlington and Alexandria were paid, and a quarter in Fairfax.

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Many fare evasion tickets in D.C. also go unpaid. DC Rider reported in June that D.C. and Metro collected less than a fifth of the more than $682,000 the city would have collected between October 2017 and May 2019 had all the issued fare evasion fines been paid.

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Metro spokeswoman Sherri Ly said Metro Transit Police Department officers are responsible only for issuing tickets. What happens afterward is up to jurisdictions.

Paul Smedberg, a former Alexandria council member who now serves as Metro board chair, did not return emails in time for publication.

That so many tickets go unpaid will likely frustrate some riders who do pay their fares and at times turn to Twitter to complain about those getting a free ride. Jurisdictions are grappling with how to treat these cases, given that many who don’t pay are likely poor.

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Unlike in Virginia, fare evasion is a criminal offense in Maryland. Meanwhile, the D.C. Council in December overrode Mayor Muriel Bowser’s veto to pass a bill that removes a potential jail sentence of up to 10 days for fare evasion, leaving a fine of up to $50 as the only punishment.

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The bill’s proponents had said that criminalizing fare evasion disproportionately hurts low-income people and minorities, citing a study that found 91% of those receiving citations for fare evasion in D.C. are African American.

Virginia’s court records do not include the income or race of people who do not pay their fares or fines.

Judge O’Brien declined to speculate about why so many tickets in Virginia go unpaid. Presiding judges for the Fairfax and Alexandria courts were unavailable to comment.

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Many people who do not pay fares or fines are likely struggling to pay rent or feed their children, said Amy L. Woolard, an attorney and policy coordinator for the Legal Aid Justice Center, a statewide advocacy group.

Taking strong action against fare evaders, like suspending their driver’s licenses, could “have a snowball effect, and bring serious consequences for minor offenses,” such as losing a job or being unable to drop off children at day care, Woolard said.

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Virginia this year softened the driver’s license penalty for failing to pay fare evasion and traffic tickets. The state now has a one-year moratorium on suspending licenses after fines or court fees go unpaid. Critics, including Woolard’s group, had argued the suspensions disproportionately hurt the poor.

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But Makan Shirafkan, a McLean, Va., defense attorney who has handled fare evasion cases, predicted that as a result of the new policy, “we’re going to start seeing more and more people not paying this stuff,” he said.

Short of suspending licenses, Virginia courts can impose a sentence of up to 60 days in jail, or sentence people to community service for not paying traffic or fare evasion fines, according to the state’s General District Court Manual.

Neither happens very often. Court records for the past-due fines showed no notations for additional jail sentences being handed out. O’Brien said she has never seen anyone sent to jail for not paying a fare evasion fine.

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O’Brien said it’s also rare in fare evasion cases for offenders to opt for community service instead of paying fines.

Judges could be reluctant to order jail time or community service, believing that an unpaid fine on a person’s record is punishment enough for not paying a few dollars, Shirafkan said.

Officials from Metro and the D.C. government have acknowledged that neither institution checks to see if people ever pay their fare evasion fines. Each maintains that it’s the other’s job. Metro spokeswoman Sherri Ly said Friday that the agency still believes that to be the case. LaToya Foster, spokesperson for Bowser, didn’t return emails.

The case process is different in D.C. Citations there, unlike in Virginia, do not automatically generate a court date. Fare evasion cases only go to D.C. Superior Court when the Attorney General for the District of Columbia decides to prosecute. But in order to do that, the attorney general needs Metro to notify his office of unpaid citations.

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With no one checking to see whether or not the fines are paid, David Mayorga, spokesperson for D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine, said the office has no records of cases of unpaid fare evasion fines in 2018.

A previous version of this article said some cases are dropped by Metro transit officers. While some citations for fare evasion have been dismissed because officers did not appear in court, according to Arlington County Chief Judge R. Frances O’Brien, the ultimate decision to dismiss or not pursue cases is made by the court or the prosecuting attorney.

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