Harper Westover, age 2, had never run afoul of the government before. The “Paw Patrol” fanatic lives in Northeast Washington with her parents, who insist she’s just the tidiest, most polite and well-
behaved toddler in the nation’s capital. They call her “Harpie.” Sometimes “Lovey.”
But to officials at the city’s Department of Public Works, Harpie is known by another name, etched in capital letters on D.C. government letterhead: VIOLATOR.
On Thursday, she received in the mail a “Notice of Violation” reporting she was being fined $75 for allegedly littering at the end of the alley by her home, on 9th Street NE.
Officials included evidence of a discarded envelope a city worker had found with a bag of trash in the alley. Exhibit A against Harpie the Violator was a photograph of that unopened envelope addressed to her from Bucky’s Buddies, a kids club for fans of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, the alma mater of her mother, Theresa.
A simple clerical error, right? Another tale to add to the city’s bulging sack of sad stories about bureaucratic dysfunction?
On Friday, Westover, an attorney for the National Labor Relations Board, called the solid waste inspector who issued the ticket, certain her daughter would be quickly absolved. She argued that her toddler did not haul a trash bag or carry her Bucky’s Buddies envelope to the end of the alley. Besides, Westover told the inspector, her daughter is 2. Could the Department of Public Works kindly rescind the fine?
“The inspector’s response was there was a piece of trash in the alley with Harper’s name on it. I said, ‘I understand that, but she’s only 2 years old. Are you willing to rescind the ticket?’ She said ‘No,’ ” Westover recalled. “They list Harper as a ‘violator.’ As a mom, it bothered me.”
The Westovers were actually given two tickets — one in Harper’s name, the other in Theresa’s, each for $75, because a piece of mail addressed to the mother was also found. Westover said there’s no way anyone in her family littered: Every week, she or her husband leave the trash bin outside their home in the alley for garbage pickup. Since a collection truck can’t squeeze into the back street, an advance team swings by, pulls out the trash bags from everyone’s bins, and carries them down the alley to toss them into the waiting truck. Maybe, Westover wondered, a garbage man accidently left the bag behind? Regardless, the Westovers say they aren’t litterbugs, and there was no proof they were.
They took their protest online. Chuck Westover snapped a picture of his daughter’s violation notice and sent it to the popular Popville blog, which published it under the headline: “Today in Has the World Gone Mad? 2 year old issued littering citation in NE.”
Readers came to Harper’s defense.
“I’m glad we’re not letting these young punks get away with this kind of antisocial behavior,” someone wrote. “Garnishing her allowance for the next three years will teach her an important lesson!”
Another wondered how it was fair for the city to presume someone had littered simply because trash was found with mail addressed to the supposed scofflaw.
“This is idiotic. What this is basically saying is that if a USPS worker accidentally dropped or purposely threw your mail on the ground, you are responsible for littering. Or if a thief stole a package and threw the packaging on the ground, or if the trash truck driver dropped some trash containing something with your name on it.”
Chuck Westover, the founder of a digital marketing company, tweeted the Popville link and wrote, “This is my daughter; not cool @DCDPW,” adding: “#FreeHarper.”
The inspector who issued the ticket, Cheryl Satchell, did not return a phone call left for her Friday. Zy Richardson , director of the department’s communications office, said late Friday she had seen the uproar online but needed to investigate the matter more thoroughly. Then, Richardson called Theresa Westover and told her if she submitted proof her child was, in fact, 2 years old, then the $75 violation notice would be rescinded.
“I have to send them a birth certificate,” Theresa Westover said. “I shouldn’t have had to wait for someone in the communications department to call me before common sense takes place.”
Early Friday evening, a public works official swung by the Westover rowhouse and saw Harper and her mother in the alley, getting ready for an interview with a local news station. The official looked at Harper, jokingly calling her “the 2-year-old violator,” according to Theresa Westover. Then he said he would waive both Harper’s and her mother’s violations.
The “Making a Litterbug” drama was officially over.
In a telephone interview with The Washington Post, Harper, fresh from an afternoon nap, insisted she was innocent.
But when pressed for more details about her whereabouts at the time of the alleged offense on Aug. 24 at 11:06 a.m, the wrongly accused litterbug laughed.
“Hide and seek,” was all she said.