Greater Greater Washington periodically publishes opinion posts on topics of interest to our readers. The views expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of Greater Greater Washington.
Do you remember in May when a young woman was pulled to the ground by two Metro Transit Police officers, her top coming off in the process, surrounded by onlookers? The officers were responding to her alleged evasion of a $2.25 Metro fare.
Or you might recall in February when a young woman suffered 12 stitches to her face, four broken teeth, and a fractured knee from being thrown to the ground while her two young children watched, after allegedly resisting arrest for not paying a $2 bus fare?
Or the man arrested in April 2017 while holding his one-year-old daughter when he was accused of not paying his fare exiting the Metro?
These are the most egregious of thousands of cases where the punishment hardly fits the crime – fare evasion in our WMATA system.
It’s hard to believe this level of force improves our Metro system or makes riders and transit workers safer. And under our current law, the consequences are very serious: up to a $300 fine (133x the base rail fare), 10 days in jail, and a potentially lifelong criminal record. We’d never think this is the appropriate response if our parking meter expired or we didn’t have the right change in our pocket when parking on a public street. Fare evasion arrests and convictions can be used to deny housing or a job, justify a parole violation for returning citizens, and ICE can even use a conviction to deport an immigrant neighbor.
This Thursday, as the Chair of the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, I will move a bill forward – introduced by my Ward 8 Council colleague Councilmember Trayon White – that decriminalizes fare evasion. If it becomes law, a violation would be a simple $50 civil citation, no different than a parking ticket.
Let’s be honest – most of us have committed fare evasion. As a regular bus commuter, I’ve forgotten to add money to my SmarTrip card and heard that annoying beep more than once, but every single time I’m waved on and told to add money on my card at the station. I’ve never once thought I’d end up in handcuffs. It has even happened to Washington Capitals star T.J. Oshie when he famously took the Metro to Game 4 of the Stanley Cup, only to discover he was low on funds. He was waved through the gates by smiling WMATA staff – which was still fare evasion.
Metro Transit Police say most stops result in a simple citation rather than arrest, but the number of arrests is rising exponentially, and the data show enforcement is racially biased. A study by the Washington Lawyers’ Committee shows a shocking 91% of the more than 20,000 citations or summonses issued during a two-year period were issued to black people, despite being less than half of the District’s population, with 46% were given to black youth. Out of more than 30,000 stops during that same period, almost one-third of those took place at just two stations – Gallery Place and Anacostia – and more than one-third of stops took place east of the Anacostia River.
The main argument I’ve heard in favor of “cracking down” on fare evasion is one of safety – that people who fare evade are likely to commit more serious crimes or assault a transit worker – sort of a “broken windows” theory. But WMATA’s data doesn’t back this up. Even as system-wide crime is down significantly, assaults on bus drivers are up 20%, despite exponential increases in fare evasion enforcement. Additionally, seeing young, black high school students pepper sprayed over a $2 fare — like we recently saw at the NoMa station — hardly feels like a system getting safer.
Still, data does show that assaults on operators are often related to conflicts over fare. Let’s lower the temperature by ensuring the punishment matches the conduct. I take transit workers’ safety very seriously, and assaults on operators will still be arrestable offenses – this bill doesn’t change that. Plus, there are already special laws in place for assaults on transit workers, including enhanced penalties.
There is no evidence showing arresting people for fare evasion, as opposed to giving them a ticket, is reducing assaults or making our system safer, only more inequitable. We’ve had the existing penalties on the books since the mid-1970s, and fare evasion still happens. That’s because it’s largely committed for one simple reason: transit affordability.
This will not lead to an increase in people abusing the system by not paying. Regular Metro riders know even if the turnstile is open or the bus driver has stepped away, most riders still pay the fare. District residents understand their role in rebuilding our transit system, and that won’t change.
This also isn’t about Metro’s finances – any fines collected from citations go to the District’s coffers, not WMATA. Having trains and buses that arrive on time and run regularly in all parts of the District will do far more for Metro’s bottom line than arresting someone who can’t afford the fare, but still needs to get to work or school. That’s why the Council’s approval of a historic $500 million in dedicated, annual funding from the District, Maryland, and Virginia in this year’s budget is so important to stabilizing the system.
It’s time to decriminalize fare evasion.
The bill markup is Thursday at 3 pm. You can watch the live stream here.