D.C. police say four out of five violators simply ignore citations for littering — a possible indicator of the difficulty the District will have collecting fines on tickets for marijuana possession, which use the same enforcement mechanism and are off to a similarly slow rate of compliance.
Marijuana decriminalization took effect July 17. As of Friday, police had issued 35 civil tickets for marijuana possession. Although violators have 14 days to respond to the tickets, no one issued a citation had either paid the $25 fine or contested a ticket, according to the Office of Administrative Hearings.
Littering enforcement has been only slightly more effective.
Of 91 littering tickets issued since the start of last year, 14 people paid the fines, according to data provided by the Office of Administrative Hearings, which adjudicates tickets for both offenses. Police issued 70 littering tickets in 2012, but only six fines were paid.
The police union says the poor compliance rates are the results of a system that was broken from the outset.
Laws spelling out the civil penalties for littering and marijuana violations prohibit officers from requiring any form of identification — even if officers suspect violators of lying about their identities.
“I could stop someone for littering and they could tell me ‘I’m Vincent Gray’ and could give me his home address. Then the mayor could later get a notice,” said Delroy Burton, chairman of the Metropolitan Police Department’s Fraternal Order of Police. “And there is nothing I can do to prove that he’s not Vincent Gray. The law is flawed.”
Lawmakers attempted to compensate by making it a criminal offense for violators to refuse to provide their names and addresses or to give false information to officers issuing tickets.
Police have noted the agency’s ongoing struggle to collect fines. The department’s annual report last year said four out of five violators ignored littering citations. Officials openly worried about the way the civil enforcement scheme would translate to marijuana ticket scofflaws.
“Without repercussions for an offense, the government’s ability to hold violators accountable for this civil offense is limited and the tickets may not be enough of an incentive to motivate people to change their behavior,” police wrote in the annual littering report. “This is important to recognize because the Council used the same enforcement scheme as the model for the Marijuana Possession Decriminalization Amendment Act of 2014.”
The law says fines can double for violators who default on their tickets. In reality, however, unpaid tickets essentially fall into a black hole.
The Office of Administrative Hearings does not pursue any form of collections to recoup the fines, staff attorney Marya Torrez said.
Police also appear to have no plan in place to enforce payments of civil fines. Asked about their plan to hold accountable violators who don’t satisfy their tickets, police spokeswoman Gwendolyn Crump said the department remains in discussions with the city’s chief financial officer and the Office of Administrative Hearings.
Ms. Crump said the department raised its enforcement concerns when marijuana decriminalization was debated before passage, with city officials encouraging lawmakers to include the penalties that stem from giving false information to an officer, hoping that would give teeth to the law. They noted that motorists are compelled to pay fines for parking tickets and citations from automated enforcement cameras because the city can boot their cars or block their vehicle reregistrations if the tickets remain unsatisfied.
“Most civil violations are only effective because they are tied to property interests or a privilege that people value,” Deputy Attorney General Andrew Fois testified at a hearing on the marijuana bill. “In this instance, however, there are no such compliance incentives for people to comply with the civil sanctions.”
D.C. Council member Tommy Wells, the Ward 6 Democrat who authored the decriminalization bill, said he modeled it on legislation from Massachusetts, one of 16 states that approved decriminalization. But officials in Massachusetts, where it is illegal to ask for identification to enforce civil infractions, expressed the same concerns about effective enforcement.
Wayne Sampson, executive director of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, told The New York Times shortly after the law passed in 2008 that he anticipated lies about violators’ identities.
“You can tell us that you’re Mickey Mouse of One Disneyland Way,” Mr. Sampson said, “and we have to assume that’s true.”
Mr. Wells did not return a call seeking comment about his D.C. legislation, which ultimately included the penalty for refusing to provide valid identity.
According to figures obtained from the Office of Administrative Hearings, out of the 91 littering tickets issued since 2013, 52 have gone into default and the fines have doubled to $150. Nine people successfully challenged their tickets, and the agency threw out another 14 tickets.
The low number of littering tickets issued overall — police officers have written a total of 174 since 2011 — is partly because the department debuted the ticketing as a pilot program in only two of the city’s seven police districts.
Until this month, police were actively enforcing litter laws in District 4, mostly in Northwest, and District 6, mostly in Southeast, to test how civil violations would be handled in conjunction with the Office of Administrative Hearings, Ms. Crump said. The department expanded the program citywide as the similar enforcement plan for marijuana decriminalization took effect.
“We are expanding littering enforcement at this time because the civil marijuana tickets are using the same process and ticket books that were piloted for the littering enforcement,” Ms. Crump said in an email. “Since the ticket books are now in use citywide for marijuana enforcement, it makes sense to expand the littering enforcement.”