Helen Lyons | Contributor
WASHINGTON — Washington D.C. moves to join the likes of California, Seattle, Portland and New York next year with the decriminalization of fare evasion on its Metro trains, citing a disproportionate effect of such laws on people of color.
The legislation, which passed 11 to two in the councils Dec. 4 meeting, was created by D.C. Councilmember Trayon White, who made headlines earlier this year when he accused Jews of controlling the weather.
“Ive seen with my own eyes and read stories,” said White. “91 percent of citations given were issued to black people.” (RELATED: Democratic Lawmaker Who Said Jews Control Weather Visits Holocaust Museum)
VIENNA, VA – AUGUST 12: Police stand watch at the Vienna/Fairfax GMU Metro Station in anticipation of the arrival of the white supremacist Unite the Right participants who plan to gather at the station before traveling to the White House August 12, 2018 in Vienna, Virginia. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
A Metrorail commuter uses a fare machine at a station in Washington, DC, on October 24, 2018. (Photo: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) drafted a letter in response to the bill urging members of the council to consider the financial implications decriminalization would have on the already struggling public transit system.
“Metro loses about $25 million a year due to fare evasion on Metrobus alone,” reads the letter, with the Chair of Metros Board of Directors Jack Evans estimating an additional $35-40 million on Metrorail.
“We have a big problem with fare evasion at Metro,” said Evans, who also serves as a councilmember for D.C.s Ward 2. “And when it is understood that you will just get a civil citation that is largely unenforceable, were looking at higher incidents. It will escalate when people realize there really is no penalty.”
Evans cited a recent article that claimed fare evaders on New Yorks subway system are costing the Metropolitan Transportation Authority $215 million just this year after Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. announced he was ending criminal charges against offenders.
“When you dont pay your fare at Metro, youre stealing,” Evans said. “Thats what youre doing. Its just like stealing something from a grocery store. Youre stealing money. So what we are doing is decriminalizing stealing.”
Hockey fans of the Washington Capitals team wait for a metro on February 1st, 2017 after a game at the Verizon center stadium. (Photo: DANIEL SLIM/AFP/Getty Images)
Commuters use the escalators at the LEnfant Plaza station in Washington, DC, on May 24, 2016. (Photo: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
While supporters of the bill expressed concern that people were being put in handcuffs for what amounts to a simple misdemeanor, WMATA insisted that only 8 percent of fare evasion stops result in an arrest.
Metro says the vast majority of those arrests are due to open warrants for other crimes or the commission of other crimes in addition to the evasion, such as an assault of a police officer.
In May, a patron stopped for squeezing through the fare gates without paying was taken into custody after officers learned he had an open warrant for sexual abuse, according to WMATAs letter.
Another person stopped in August was arrested when police learned he was wanted for first-degree murder.
“Stopping individuals for fare evasion and the ability to check identification is an important tool for our Metro Transit police officers,” WMATA wrote, adding that the Metro Transit Police Department “has assured the WMATA Board of Directors that they will make no arrests solely for fare evasion where no other factors are present.”
People taking part in the “No Pants Subway Ride” enter a metro station in Washington on January 12, 2014. “No Pants Subway Ride” is an annual event in which transit passengers ride trains without wearing pants in January. The event is observed in dozens of cities worldwide. (Photo: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
Those other factors have included disorderly conduct, weapons offenses, possession of a controlled substance, possession with intent to distribute, refusal to sign a citation, throwing the citation at the officer and fleeing from police.
Councilmember Charles Allen cited other cities where similar measures were implemented, saying that each decriminalized fare evasion is due to “the racial inequities of its enforcement” and “the sky hasnt fallen.”
“It would be easy to criminalize every bad behavior we dont like because we know we wouldnt do it,” said Allen. “But there are serious, real life consequences that come with misdemeanors and just because I dont have that burden to carry doesnt mean our law is just.”
[Hallie Lyons/Contributor for TheDC]
[Hallie Lyons/Contributor for TheDC]
The only other vote against the bill aside from Evans came from Chairman Phil Mendelson.
“This about more than simply poor people who cant pay the fare. These folks [are] deliberately and without evidence of inability to pay, deliberating avoiding the fare,” Mendelson said. “Its people who are deliberately trying to cheat and theyre cheating the public transit system. It is theft. As legislators, were going to have to appropriate the subsidy to Metro. This is something that we have to pay for.”
WMATA echoed the financial concern, warning that “any increase in fare evasion as a result of a change in the law in the District would create additional requirements for subsidy increases or fare hikes to support Metros operating budget.”
Woodley Park-Zoo / Adams Morgan Metro Station in Washington, DC, August 17, 2018. (Photo: DANIEL SLIM/AFP/Getty Images)
Commuters get off a Metro train as others wait to go aboard at the LEnfant Plaza station in Washington, DC, on May 24, 2016. (Photo: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
Unswayed, At-Large Councilmember Robert White said, “Im upset that Metro is losing money, but Im more upset about whats happening to black people.”
“Its a feel-good thing,” said Evans. “I got it, and itll pass, but mark my words — this is a concern that we should all have about decriminalizing stealing.”
The bill, which also decriminalizes smoking, eating, spitting, littering and playing music without headphones, will be sent to Mayor Muriel Bowser for consideration. It is not clear when it will ultimately be decided on. (RELATED: EXCLUSIVE: DCs Metro Couldnt Document Its Complaint Responses; Then It Could)
“We raised serious concerns around safety and security and the financial impact of this action,” said Dan Stessel, chief communications officer for WMATA. “While we are extremely disappointed in the vote, it is our hope that the Council will revisit the issue once the effects are more fully understood.”