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Losing The Right to Fight A Ticket

Come next year, anyone who lives, works in or visits the District by car will lose a basic right--the right to protest a parking ticket in front of a hearing officer.

The D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles' plan for 2008 includes this sentence: "DMV will complete the phase-out of in-person adjudication of parking tickets in favor of mail-in and e-mail adjudication by December 2008."

There's a bunch of nonsense in the "performance plan" about how this change is meant to reduce waiting times for those who are appealing more serious cases--moving violations and the like. But recipients of tickets suspect that the real reason for the change is to save money and perhaps to shift the balance of power from those who have had good success fighting tickets back to the bureaucrats whose job it is to raise revenue for the city.

Advocates for motorists say there's a nationwide drive by cities and states to push up revenue from tickets in part by making it harder for ticketed citizens to make any kind of appeal for human mercy. In Boston, for example, it can now cost $275 in fees to appeal a $100 ticket.

But in Washington, there's at least some reason to believe that you're better off protesting a ticket by mail than in person. My own anecdotal experience from sitting in on hearings at the D.C. DMV tells me that hearing officers do occasionally bend to appeals accompanied by teary or pleading speeches, but the statistics tell a different and more persuasive story: More than 55 percent of those who fought their tickets in the past year got those citations dismissed. But a considerably higher portion of those who made their stand by mail rather than in person got off--fully 65 percent.

So maybe the city won't win more cases by eliminating in-person hearings. Still, given such egregiously high levels of error by meter maids and police, the least the city could do to assure fairness is to allow those who receive tickets a chance to present their evidence in person. There are a good many cases in which a paper explanation cannot quite capture the circumstances under which a ticket was issued. And I've seen all too many cases in which the rationale for dismissing a ticket did not emerge from the initial arguments, but rather from the question and answer exchange that a hearing officer engages in with the recipient of the ticket. That process would entirely vanish under an exclusively mail or email system.

Of course, there are other ways for the DMV to save money. The same plan that announces the end of in-person hearings says that the department will spent $20,000 to put all DMV employees through "cultural competency training" by March 2008, flushing away taxpayer dollars to instruct workers on "linguistic diversity, ethnic diversity and sexual orientation." For DMV workers. Somebody's getting a nice government contract on that one. Another $20,000 is being spent to "develop a customer satisfaction survey," as if there's any doubt about what taxpayers want from their visit to the DMV. And another $30,000 is being spent to create five public service announcements to be foisted upon people who are stuck in the DMV waiting room, adding insult to injury.

By Marc Fisher |  December 5, 2007; 7:10 AM ET
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I'm with ya on that.

Though honestly, I'm still absorbed in my "victory" over the abusive driver fees here in VA.

Augusta Co., among some others, are making a big point on principle, saying the judge -and the county- doesn't support the abusive driver fees, particularly for reckless driving for those within the lower spectrum of the violation (simply put, I can't drive 55! Well, 65. Whoopsie!). So the judge doesn't give em.

In all actuality it's a bittersweet "victory" and of course it still comes out of my pocket, but I still can't help but feel good about it. Probably the only time I could ever imagine saying that about getting a speeding ticket! :)

Sorry for the digression, I just got a big kick out of it. But yeah, I hate how a lot of municipalities are streamlining the pocket-lining. If only other businesses (yes, that's what the DMV is successfully being) could follow that model and pass the savings onto the public!

Posted by: Wakka Wakka | December 5, 2007 7:51 AM

I sent two appeals of parking tickets by mail to DC (one in Sept 05, the other in Nov 07) and never heard anything back from them. Does that mean I won or does it mean they lost them in the bureaucracy and next time I'll get towed as a scofflaw?

Posted by: WA2CHI | December 5, 2007 8:23 AM

On principle, this is surely an outrage, but does this really make a difference when the "judge" (I imagine that the judges who sit in traffic court are a peg or two lower than even Judge Pants on the judicial hierarchy) agrees with the municipal authority all the time? I got a ticket last summer in Arlington for running a stop sign from a cop. Of course I stopped because Officer Green had his lights flashing on his cruiser. As I stopped I could he was staring at his dashboard. So in court Officer Green says his lights weren't on and he was focused on the stop sign. Now I imagine if my freedom were on the line the judge may have been a little more circumspect, but given, as you say, the imperative to raise revenue, of course he just said guilty, next victim. If the whole process is a joke, then maybe it would be more efficient just to get rid of it. But using that standard I guess you would have to get rid of DCPS as well.

Posted by: Payne | December 5, 2007 8:26 AM

ha! Maybe in the cultural diversity training at the DMV, they could add a quick lesson in speed? You know, recognizing that tons of people are in line, and they might want to get waited on? And that they might resent watching you all gabbing with each other while we are stuck in line?

Posted by: jj | December 5, 2007 8:49 AM

Frankly, other than the stupid inspection station hassle, my experiences in visiting the DC DMV have greatly changed for the positive over the 5 years I've been living in the city.

I am pleased with the new computerized systems, the new locations, the new availability of services on the web, and the general increase in competence and focus on customer service. Kudos to the DMV.

Posted by: 20009 | December 5, 2007 8:54 AM

Believe me, the $20k + $20k for cultural training and a satisfaction survey could be money well-spent for a multi-million dollar enterprise dealing with the public.

That $30k for public service announcements sucks, however.

Posted by: Steve | December 5, 2007 8:54 AM

No, you'll just get a letter from a collection agency telling you to pay up, even though you've heard nothing from the DMV. So, you just dispute the validity of the charge with the collection agency, and let the cycle roll out a little farther.

Posted by: Dan | December 5, 2007 9:44 AM

Wow, am I glad I don't live in D.C. That's a great one-two punch: first, make it essentially impossible to contest a ticket; then waste money on useless training and PSA's. Arlington ain't perfect, but I'll take it any day over D.C.

Posted by: Arlingtonian | December 5, 2007 10:04 AM

I've had a parking ticket by mail appeal pending w/ DC for more than 7 years. No collection agency issues, they keep showing it as pending ...

Posted by: fendertweed | December 5, 2007 11:02 AM

Exactly my thoughts, jj! I'm all for cultural competency, but how about starting with professional competency training. While DMV services have improved over the past few years due to online features, employee attitudes sure have not.

Posted by: cpw | December 5, 2007 11:05 AM

The Q&A part of a hearing "would entirely vanish under an exclusively mail or email system," Fisher writes.

This is not true. Government workers are very competent in using emails and the questions-and-answers flow between DMV and customers can be quite productive.

As long as there is an appeal process, who gives care whether the adjudication is in person or not?

The world is becoming IT modernized and I believe it is a good idea to support DC's pioneering efforts to compel drivers to use mail and email to fight tickets. This shift in thinking will save all of us time and money.

I do have one suggestion for DC: Please post all mail/email exchanges to the web site so the process is transparent and public. Let's not lose the right to observe and monitor the process. This will help ensure fairness and equity. Also, the adjudicated cases can serve as models for what to do and/or not to do when contesting tickets.

Meanwhile, Fish, get off your hook... Get over it. Your comments are too raw this time... The future is now...


Posted by: Paulo | December 5, 2007 11:37 AM

It's just amazing to me that some of the biggest whiners are training for employees at all levels of government are the same people who complain the most about perceived employee inefficiencies.

They are also the same people who fly off to over-cooled meeting rooms in Dallas and Atlanta Airport hotels for "team building" exercises, and trundle off to the MD Eastern Shore or West Virginia for "0ff-sites."

If you don't think DMV service has improved in the last five years you need to take a hard look at your expectations. Or perhaps you just need to resolve a problem with Comcast.....

Posted by: CW | December 5, 2007 11:47 AM

the irony of this change is that, up till now, most people seemed not to realize that tickets could be contested by mail. I've done so successfully on a number of occasions. My son even did so to contest a red light camera ticket -- and won!

Posted by: eo mcmars | December 5, 2007 11:52 AM

I have had some difficulty with unfair tickets. I was ticketed in front of my house (that address written as my parking location) for what the officer said was a temporary no parking zone for our entire block for a neighbor to move. First off, you only get about 100 feet to block off during a move, not an entire block. I was outside the signs that showed where the No Parking Zone was. I contested the ticket with a photo of the scene and they wrote back that my appeal was rejected without explanation.

Another time I was given $600 in tickets for a single parking event where they essentially threw the book at me for every known infraction (expired meter, too close to curb, street cleaning day, etc). I contested that in person, the same day I received them, and paid $75 as I remember because the judge knew the officer was a loon.

Another time I contested a moving violation in person in VA and the judge chastised the officer for an unfair speed trap on a highway onramp.

I really think the loss of that in-person venue is a bad thing.

Posted by: DCer | December 5, 2007 11:55 AM

I agree that the DVM experience has dramatically changed for the better over the past 5+ years. And I've written to them to say that because I think positive experiences should be highlighted. If you think the DC DMV is still so bad, are you sure YOU aren't the problem? It amazes me some of what I hear the customers saying and how they come so ill-prepared (everything you need to know can be found on the website) and get so upset when they aren't totally catered to.

Posted by: 20016 | December 5, 2007 12:25 PM

Hey arlingtonian just for the record Arlington already doesnt let you appeal tickets in person so get off your high horse, go back to your rapidly depreciating condo, stay on your side of the river please.

Posted by: Chris | December 5, 2007 12:53 PM

If I were managing the process I would be looking at why so many tickets are appealed, and why the city loses so many appeals. A 55% dismissal rate is staggering -- but anyone who owns a car in DC knows that a lot of questionable or downright bogus tickets are written. If digital cameras were included with the hand-held computers the officers already have -- and if officers were held accountable for tickets that don't stand up -- it wouldn't matter what the appeals process was.

Posted by: washington, dc | December 5, 2007 1:08 PM

A few years back I had a car that I was going to donate to charity. The tags (inspection and registration) were set to expire at the end of the month. But I wasn't going to be able to get it to the charity for another 2 weeks after that. So I called DMV to see what I could do (I didn't want to register the car for a year when I would only have it for 2 weeks). They told me that I couldn't get temporary tags until these had actually expired (first lie/mistake).

So sure enough, on the first morning they had expired, at 6am a meter-maid was ticketing me $400 for expired tags and inspection. So I rushed into the DMV and got my temp tags.

At that time they had just switched from the stickers you put on the license plate to the stickers in the window. So I put my sticker on my window right away.

The next morning at 6am another meter-maid left me another $400 ticket for expired plates and inspection.

I then had to call DMV to get proof that the sticker I had was indeed all I needed, then I called the police and told them that I was ticketed in error. Over the phone they canceled my tickets and gave me a confirmation number (thank god - see below).

The next day I caught the meter-maid at 6am trying to give me another $400 ticket for expired plates and inspection. So I went running out there and spent the next hour arguing with her about whether or not my car was registered. I finally had to call her boss's boss (the first boss was as ignorant as she) who, upon my telling him the story said to me "you're registered so what is your issue?" At that point I lost it a little bit and screamed at him to tell his workers that - and handed her the phone.

She took that ticket back and, miraculously, did not come back to ticket me again.

Two months later I got a notice in the mail that I was overdue to pay the tickets and that they had doubled. Thank god I had that confirmation number so I was able to get everything cleared up(after hours on the phone).

I do believe they have improved a lot over the last few years, but that doesn't mean there isn't room for more improvement.

Thanks for letting me tell my horror story!

Posted by: Capitol Hiller | December 5, 2007 2:19 PM

I got a few tickets due to a broken meter. I went to adjudication with my photos and the tickets were dismissed. I am certain that without the Q-and-A of an in-person hearing I would have been stuck with these unjust penalties. And don't forget the one-third of DC residents who are functionally illiterate (the national average). How will they receive justice? This is poor -- if not cynical -- public policy.

Posted by: Mike Licht | December 5, 2007 3:07 PM

I sent in a parking ticket defense by mail in February 2007 and I have not heard anything back from them? Is my ticket still valid?

Posted by: BK | December 5, 2007 3:12 PM

to Mike Licht: two of the tickets I successfully appealed by mail were with photo documentation, so in-person is not the only way for that option to be employed. As for the 55% dismissal rate cited by another poster, I suspect that a large portion of that is due to the failure of the issuing officer to show up for the hearing. That's what happened to me the one time I appealed in person.

Posted by: eo mcmars | December 5, 2007 3:23 PM

I don't think this will make much of a difference. DC owes me $40 for wrongfully ticketing me. $30 for the ticket; $10 for the "adjudication" processing fee. They never adjudicated it; so I wrote the district attorney's office with the same photos and proof that I was parked legally that I gave to the adjudication traffic court. The district attorney agreed and indicated to the traffic authority that I was, in fact, legally parked.

That was over a year ago. Still haven't gotten my $#%$#@@ money back after writing several times. They better pray they don't ticket me again; I feel a law suit coming on.

Posted by: Wrongfully Ticketed | December 5, 2007 3:44 PM

eo mcmars: Unless there have been drastic changes, issuing officers are not required to show up for parking ticket hearings, so you must be referring to another type of violation. It is in-person parking ticket adjudications that we are going to lose.

Posted by: Mike Licht | December 5, 2007 5:22 PM

This is known as a distinction without a difference. I have twice appealed by mail, gotten the ticket dismissed, but then DC sent my information to their collection agency anyway! So despite the dismissal, I ended up having to pay the ticket, or get a bad mark on my credit report! So what the heck, who cares if they dismiss in person or by mail, or don't dismiss, you're going to end up paying in any case.

Posted by: Gasmonkey | December 5, 2007 5:29 PM

Gee Marc, I thought you'd be thrilled by this development. After all, you've repeatedly voiced your desire to eliminate the civil court system. Well if memory serves, parking tickets are considered civil infractions, not criminal ones - at least in DC anyway. Just goes to show - be careful what you wish for!

Posted by: courthouseguy | December 6, 2007 2:46 PM

I used to live in DC and now live in Maryland. I have appealed 2 or 3 DC parking tickets through the mail. I was very pleased that they were promptly dismissed. When I lived in DC, we used to joke that going in person was a scam because you would come out from the hearing only to find another ticket on yoru car.
I haven't gotten a ticket in MD recently, but I am not aware of the ability to contest a ticket by mail here - as far as I know, you have to take the day off and inconvenience yourself to go in person. The DC mail process is a good thing - not something to complain about.

Posted by: didnik | December 6, 2007 4:47 PM

I received a ticket for expired tags while parked on the street overnight in Arlington recently. I remember there being an issue with cops ticketing cars for expired inspection if the vehicle was not moving (i.e. the car has to be in motion for there to be a violation), and I was wondering if there is a similar Virginia statute on tags. I am sure they ticket parked cars with expired tags all the time, I just am not sure they are allowed to. Any help would be appreciated.

Posted by: arlingtonscoflaw | December 12, 2007 10:56 AM

Lost in this discussion is the question of why we have to pay a government for the "right" to travel from point A to point B, or for the "right" to own property, i.e. a car. If you accept this as correct, you'd be happy living under a king.

Posted by: MurderTheGovernment | January 15, 2008 10:23 AM

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