Metro has temporarily stopped issuing citations in the District for fare evasion, eating in the transit system and other offenses because of a problem with the language in a new D.C. law that decriminalizes those violations, officials said.
In an effort to clarify how the new law should work, the D.C. Council last week unanimously passed emergency legislation that is awaiting the signature of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D). Once the legislation takes effect, the transit agency said, it will lift the enforcement suspension imposed by Metro Police Chief Ron Pavlik.
Pavlik’s order applies only to violations that occur inside D.C. city limits. Tickets will still be issued in the Metro system in Virginia and Maryland.
A spokeswoman for Bowser said Thursday that the mayor has signed the emergency bill.
Officials said the problem involves a D.C. law that changed the legal classifications of fare evasion and such offenses as eating, drinking, spitting and playing loud music without headphones on buses and trains and at stations in the District.
Previously, violators were subject to criminal citations. Under the new law, the offenses are civil violations akin to littering or jaywalking and are punishable by lesser fines.
The decriminalization bill, enacted after the council overrode a veto by Bowser, did not set up payment or appeals processes for citations, according to Metro. Erik Salmi, a spokesman for council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who championed decriminalization, said the emergency bill rectifies the problem.
“It lays out an appeals procedure and establishes that fines should be paid to the [city’s] office of administrative hearings,” Salmi said.
He said the original bill “left it unspecified, because [the mayor’s office] can set up these things if it’s not specified in the actual law.” But after decriminalization took effect this month, Salmi said, “there was some question about whether [Bowser] had the authority to do that. So we moved the emergency legislation” to set up administrative rules for it.
Council members who backed decriminalization argued that a vast majority of criminal citations for fare evasion and other offenses were issued in the District, compared with Maryland and Virginia, and disproportionately affected African Americans. Bowser sided with Metro officials and the transit agency’s largest union, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, which said decriminalization would encourage scofflaws and cost Metro millions of dollars in lost revenue.
Fare evasion in the city once carried a fine of up to $300 and potential jail time but is now a civil infraction punishable by a $50 fine. Fare evasion remains a criminal offense in Maryland, but it is a civil violation in Virginia.
The issue of eating on Metro and the law against it became the subject of public debate last weekend after a rider photographed an African American Metro worker eating on a train and tweeted the image, tagging Metro and the Twitter account of a vocal critic of the agency with her complaint. The backlash on social media was swift, with people accusing the complainant, who is Jordanian American, of publicly shaming a black woman and trying to get her fired.
In defending the worker, ATU Local 689 Chief of Staff Barry Hobson said the woman is a bus operator whose schedule that day required her to travel by train from one bus to another during her meal break. Hobson also cited Pavlik’s nonenforcement order, issued a few days earlier.
“Our union’s position on that is, if he put out that memo, then why is it not okay for our operator to eat?” Hobson said this week. He added that the bus operator had not been informed of any disciplinary action by her supervisors.
Metro spokesman Dan Stessel noted that regardless of nonenforcement, eating in the transit system is still against the rules. He declined to comment on what action, if any, would be taken against the Metrobus employee.
“This kind of incident wouldn’t be expected to result in more than counseling for a first offense,” he said. “We try to reserve disciplinary action . . . for more serious violations directly related to safety and service delivery.”
This story has been updated.