A naval officer who dashed out to pick up dinner on Wisconsin Avenue for his wife and 6-month-old daughter in July returned home more than three hours later with an arrest record instead.
In between, he said, he was photographed in handcuffs by kids loitering on a District street corner, locked in a cell at the 2nd District station, fingerprinted and required to pose for a mug shot.
He was jailed because the license plates on his car had expired.
The District may be the only place in the nation where police are authorized to arrest drivers if their plates are more than 30 days out of date.
Critics of the policy, notably AAA, also cite the case of a mother who was arrested while she was on her way to pick up a child from school in Palisades in May. She was allegedly told that until her release, another child riding in the car would be sent to a social services agency.
The automobile association challenges the police’s authority to jail people for the offense, pointing to a city code that says people who drive with expired tags can be fined up to $1,000 and jailed for up to 30 days “upon being convicted of the offense.”
“It’s a traffic infraction, not even a misdemeanor,” said John B. Townsend II of AAA Mid-Atlantic. “If I park illegally or park in front of a fire hydrant, they may tow my car, because those are infractions, too, but they won’t arrest me. Why is this the only infraction for which they arrest people?”
The actual number of arrests is unclear, and police did not respond to requests for additional information Tuesday.
Given that drivers from any state in the union who arrive in the District with expired tags may face arrest, Sen. James Webb (D-Va.) weighed in with Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) last Thursday with a letter saying that “there is absolutely no justification for jailing citizens whose only offense is an expired tag.”
The next day, Gray said he expected police to use discretion in deciding whom to arrest, explaining that they were allowed to jail drivers with expired tags under a law that dated from a high-crime period when it was used against drug dealers.
In a statement last week, police spokeswoman Gwendolyn Crump said: “MPD officers are sworn to enforce the laws that are on the books. . . . If you have concerns, please address them with the legislators.”
The incident involving the naval officer, a lieutenant commander and U.S. Naval Academy graduate assigned to the Pentagon, began when he went to pick up takeout from the Surfside restaurant near Glover Park. He spoke on the condition that he not be named because of the embarrassment it would cause his family.
As he neared the restaurant, a police officer who was following him turned on his flashing lights and pulled him over.
“The police officer came up and said, ‘What’s the deal with your plates?’ ” the naval officer said. “I honestly didn’t know if they were expired.”
The issue turned complicated, because the plates were issued by Florida and the man was living in the District.
“I kept my legal residence for voting and income-tax purposes in Florida,” he said. “Then he started giving me a hard time because I had a Maryland driver’s license. I don’t get it changed everywhere I go because I’m in the military, and he said, ‘Oh, no, in D.C., you have to get it changed.’ I’ve since found out that that’s not true. Military are exempt from having to get a new driver’s license.”
He said that the officer ordered him out of the car and that officers arriving in another patrol car put him in handcuffs.
“There were some younger kids taking cellphone pictures of me getting handcuffed and stuff, which was a little humiliating,” the naval officer said. “I think a lot of people would assume you have to do something to make a cop arrest you. I can tell you, I was extremely cooperative and didn’t mouth off in any way.”
He was taken to a jail cell at the 2nd District station, processed for fingerprints and a mug shot, and returned to the cell. At 9:25 p.m., more than three hours after he left home, he was released. He walked home and immediately went online to renew his Florida license tags.
“And once I got the sticker — I think it was Friday night — my wife drove me down Saturday morning to put the sticker on and drive the car home,” he said. “It had three $100 parking tickets on it, all for expired plates.”
He paid them.
“I shouldn’t have been driving around with expired plates,” he said. But, he added, “I don’t think being arrested and handcuffed for that is reasonable.”
He was summoned to court on the original ticket Sept. 1. It was dismissed without a hearing, and he was told that in two years he could seek to have his arrest record sealed.
The Navy already knows about the arrest. The officer is headed for a year of duty in Afghanistan, and in filling out paperwork recently, he came upon a standard question: Have you ever been arrested?
“And so, from here on out, I have to say, ‘Yes, I’ve been arrested,’ ” the officer said, “and for any job application, ‘Yes, I’ve been arrested.’ Once you explain what it’s for, I’m sure it’s not going to be that big of a deal. But I have no way of knowing, for a job, if it’s going to be some sort of a tiebreaker.”