Complaints from residents, a senator and AAA led to the D.C. Council vote to end arrests for drivers who failed to register their tags. The former law allowed officers to jail D.C. and out-of-state drivers with tags more than 30 days old.
Upon the request of Mayor Vincent Gray (D), the D.C. Council voted on emergency legislation to repeal the current law of arresting and jailing law-abiding drivers. Instead of jail time, violators will be fined under the “Criminal Penalty for Unregistered Repeal Amendment Emergency Act of 2011.” Chairman Kwame Brown (D) introduced the legislation on behalf of Gray.
On Oct. 6, Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) sent a letter to Gray, which said that there is “absolutely no justification for jailing citizens whose only offense is an expired tag.”
“Recent news reports indicate that the Washington Metropolitan Police Department is incarcerating citizens for failing to update their vehicle registration tags on time,” Webb wrote. “If true, I hope you will agree that this is a waste of the limited financial resources which the District should be directing toward fighting serious crime.”
The nation’s largest motorist club AAA also tackled the issue and reacted to the arrest of a U.S. Naval officer in July who was pulled over for expired Florida tags. AAA released a statement applauding the adoption of the new legislation, but said new penalties are still harsh. If stopped, motorists with tags expired fewer than 30 days would now receive a fine of $100. A tag expired more than 30 days would result in a $200 fine and possible impoundment.
“While this is less onerous and troublesome than arresting motorists whose only violation is operating a vehicle with a plate 30 days past expiration, this is also problematic,” said John B. Townsend II, AAA Mid-Atlantic’s manager of Public and Government Affairs. “It would leave drivers stranded on the street and the city has to tread carefully here, because it could also raise the specter of the hydra-headed monster of profiling based on class, income, gender and ethnicity.”
The emergency legislation will be in effect for no longer than 90 days. The original law to arrest drivers who had expired tags was created during a time in D.C. when drug dealers were prominent in the 90s.
Phillip Stephany, a tow truck driver at Towing Pros and Recovery in Washington, D.C., said from his experience with frequent drivers, passing the legislation was a good move.
“Some people ride around with dead tags that are like two or three years old,” he said. “It’s good they passed it.”
But Stephany said he would still be skeptical about an officer who stops a motorist without registered tags.
“You know D.C. police is [strict] so they are going to look for anything to lock you up if you do have expired tags.”