After a spate of public outrage over the practice of arresting drivers with expired license plates, the D.C. Council acted Tuesday to keep those people out of jail cells. It adopted emergency legislation that would repeal criminal penalties for driving with an expired tag, instituting fines instead.
“Today, we have an opportunity to fix a problem in our law, one that has caused many people to scratch their heads in amazement,” said Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D), who introduced the legislation on behalf of Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D).
The council first gave police authority to make the arrests in 1973, and the law was used during the violence of the 1990s crack epidemic that turned the District into the murder capital of the United States. With homicides last year at their lowest since 1963, city police continued to enforce the arrest policy and began to snare people unaccustomed to the clink of handcuffs.
Sen. James Webb (D-Va.) heard complaints from his Northern Virginia constituents and wrote to Gray that the District had “absolutely no justification for jailing citizens whose only offense is an expired tag.”
“Once they’re having an even-handed or all-areas-included application of a policy like this, right away we get an uproar,” said David A. Harris, a University of Pittsburgh law professor with expertise in racial profiling. “In the inner city, there’s a much higher chance that somebody’s going to be arrested. Those people tend to be people that the rest of us don’t listen to or hear from a lot. They are not people of status; they are not people who have access to the media; they are not people who have access to counsel right way, and because of that their voices are not heard.”
Harris, who lived on Capitol Hill during the 1990s, described the District as a city of enclaves in which police operated differently.
“Having a rule that you can arrest anybody anytime their tag is expired, in my experience, is much more likely to be used in areas like Southeast, like Anacostia, than it is in upper Northwest,” he said. “Police operate with a greater sense of impunity in areas like Southeast because you’re not going to run into people who can make a lot of trouble if you arrest them, whereas in Northwest D.C., who knows who you might be arresting if you get somebody with an expired tag?”
Some of the people arrested this year — a Navy lieutenant commander and a mother whose child was in a car seat — were among those who made their voices heard. And their complaints were among those amplified recently by AAA.
“This may be the only place in the nation where you can get arrested for a traffic infraction,” said John B. Townsend II of AAA.
Another recent routine traffic stop on Rock Creek Parkway raises more questions about enforcement of D.C. laws.
When a patrol car’s lights flashed behind him two weeks ago, the Air Force lieutenant colonel behind the wheel says he figured he knew why.
“The only thing I’d done wrong was a U-turn,” he said.
The military officer ended up in handcuffs. But this arrest was a bit different from the ones that have caused the recent uproar: He was driving legally with an expired driver’s license.
The man, who asked not to be named to save his family from embarrassment, said he and his wife were on their way from their Woodbridge home to an adoption meeting in Maryland when they were pulled over after leaving the Exxon station just off Rock Creek Parkway near the Kennedy Center.
“I gave him my military ID and my expired Utah driver’s license, which I’m legally entitled to use because I’m active-duty military,” said the officer, a former F-16 pilot who has been assigned to the Pentagon for four years.
He said two or three other officers arrived and agreed that his military status did not make his license legal. He was handcuffed and his shoelaces were removed. He was seated on the curb and then in the back of a patrol car as his wife watched, he said.
“They said, ma’am, you’re going to have to drive the vehicle. We’re going to have to take your husband in for the night,” he said. “She was a little bit traumatized at this point.”
His wife drove off to get bail money from an ATM, he said.
He said he sat in the patrol car for half an hour before another police officer who had heard discussion of the arrest on police radio arrived at the scene.
“He said on the way over he called his captain and had the captain check with the attorneys on the active-duty status question, and they figured out that they were in the wrong,” the Air Force officer said.
He said the officer drove him to the 2nd District station to meet his wife, who had arrived there with the bail money. He said the officer apologized to them both.
“I find it kind of inexcusable that the same folks are harassing military guys and slapping cuffs on them when they don’t know the law,” the Air Force officer said. “There’s a lot of military in the Washington area. My interest is in making sure that the whole driver’s license thing needs to be an education piece for them, specifically as it applies to the military.”
D.C. police spokeswoman Gwendolyn Crump said in an e-mail that the city’s policy depends on the laws in the jurisdiction where the license was issued.
“If another jurisdiction extends the expired permit of an active duty member of the Armed Forces to the date of the member’s discharge, then MPD will not cite the member and permit him/her to continue to operate the vehicle,” she wrote. “We acknowledge the reciprocity.”