Sign up for our free newsletter
Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans is taking this fare evasion thing personally.
To all you gate jumpers, Metro freeloaders, and public transit scallawags, when you don’t pay your fare, you might as well be reaching into Evans’ wallet and taking out $2.
Evans is the chairman of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority board of directors, and during a marathon Council meeting yesterday, he spoke in staunch opposition to a bill that would decriminalize fare evasion—in effect lowering the maximum fine to $50 and eliminating the possibility of arrest and jail time.
The bill passed 11-2, with Evans and Council Chairman Phil Mendelson dissenting. It will come before the Council again for a second vote before landing on Mayor Muriel Bowser‘s desk.
But for nearly 40 minutes, the Council’s debate wandered into discussions on racial disproportionality in the criminal justice system, heavy handed cops, allocation of police resources, over-criminalization, allegedly faulty and “inflammatory” statistics, Woodrow Wilson, white privilege and, briefly, marijuana.
Let’s jump in.
Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen was first to make his case, citing an analysis of WMATA data by the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, which shows that 91 percent of the 20,000 criminal citations and summons issued for fare evasion between January 2016 and February 2018 were given to African American people.
“Criminalization of such minor offenses has resulted in an astounding number of District residents receiving arrest and conviction records,” Allen said. “An arrest, even if it’s not charged by the prosecutor, can turn someone’s life upside down. … The collateral consequences are numerous and devastating, and vastly disproportionate to not paying a $2 fare.”
Allen also cited high profile instances of alleged fare evaders tangling with transit officers. During one encounter with an officer, a young mother sitting with her two young children had teeth knocked out and fractured her kneecap.
Next, Evans chimed in, estimating that Metro loses between $25 million and $50 million per year to fare evasion.
“We’re losing a whole shhhh—lot of money by people evading their fares,” he said.
Evans went on to question the analysis by the Washington Lawyers’ Committee: “I’m guessing they went and surveyed a station and came up with these numbers on their own. We don’t track that,” he said. “They could have gone to a station where largely African-Americans use the station, and that’s where they got the percentage.
“I just don’t buy those numbers,” he added. “It’s inflammatory.”
Marques Banks, a lawyer who authored the report, was shocked to hear Evans’ reaction. Banks told LL that the report is based on data obtained from WMATA through a public records request.
Evans said decriminalizing fare evasion would remove the mechanism that allows WMATA to enforce fares in the first place. Under the law, an arrest warrant can be issued for people who don’t pay their fines. But, Evans noted, “we could come after you, but we never do it.”
Evans closed with a quote from from historian Margaret MacMillan about Woodrow Wilson: “When he was convinced, as he often was, of the rightness of his cause,” Evans said from the dais, “he regarded those who disagreed with him as not wrong, but evil.”
(The actual quote is “wicked,” not “evil.”)
Evans said he’s not the enemy because he disagrees with those who support the bill. He’s trying to run a Metro system, and decriminalizing fare evasion would encourage more fare evaders, he said.
“It’s a basic issue of if you walk into my system and you don’t pay, you just stole $2 from me,” he said. “You might as well have reached over and grabbed my wallet and tooken $2 out of it.”
Next up was At-Large Councilmember Robert White, who poked a hole in Evans’ argument that bumping fare evasion down to a civil infraction would take away the city’s enforcement mechanism.
“If what Mr. Evans cited is true, that we criminally don’t prosecute, then what he’s talking about still is not a deterrent,” White said. “If I’m in my car, and I run a toll, the police don’t come arrest me. They send me a fine in the mail. If I don’t pay that fine, it’s sent to collections. That’s a deterrent.”
Then Mendelson, the other dissenting voice, spoke. He compared the issue to marijuana decriminalization, saying “smoking dope should not be a crime.”
But fare evasion is theft, and “theft has a victim, even if it’s a big system like Metro.”
Mendelson then cited a message from the D.C. Attorney General’s Office, which said that office is aware of no person who had received jail time for fare evasion or failure to pay.
Mendelson also echoed Evans’ earlier statements that racial disproportionality should not be part of the argument.
“If you look at most criminal offenses in the District of Columbia, disproportionately, people of color are arrested,” he said. “That can’t be the argument because then we’d have to look at other crimes.”
Finally, Mendelson addressed Allen’s earlier reference to violent encounters with transit police, saying that bad cops are going to be bad cops regardless of whether fare evasion is a crime or a civil infraction.
“Most cops are good, and there’s some not-so-good cops and then there are cops who are just ordinary human beings who get annoyed,” Mendelson said. “And they find a pretext to arrest somebody. So to point to the offense and say well if we get rid of that offense they’ll stop picking on people is just wrong.”
Evans jumped in again to emphasize that “no one has ever gone to jail for fare evasion,” and “we do not arrest anyone for fare evasion.”
Allen responded by citing four separate arrests for fare evasion on October 11 alone. Metro police data show dozens of arrests where fare evasion is listed as the lone offense.
Mendelson again questioned whether those people were arrested solely for fare evasion.
“I probably shouldn’t say this publicly, but this is what a whole lot of people think: If you piss off a cop, he’s going to arrest you for disorderly conduct—contempt of cop,” Mendelson said. “So get rid of [the crime] and they won’t do that anymore? Of course not, they’ll find some other reason to arrest you.”
Next, White raised his hand again, pointing out that the current Metro system is losing approximately $50 million per year (according to Evans’ estimate). So something is clearly not working.
“So how we’re going to sit here and defend a system and say what we’re doing now is working … baffles me,” he said. “We see discrimination folding upon itself. It happens every day in this country, and this city is no exception, and if we don’t decide that we’re going to take a stand somewhere then we’re always met with this argument that this is not the right time to take that stand.”
(At-Large Councilmember David Grosso then motioned to close debate, which bars anyone who already spoke from speaking again. It passed)
Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White, who introduced the bill but had yet to speak, said many of his constituents have described seeing an emphasis on fare evasion, violent encounters with officers, and arrests of accused evaders, while other crimes (robberies, burglaries, break-ins) go unsolved.
Positioning himself toward Evans and Mendelson, Trayon White said the Council should “re-evaluate how we state facts on the dais and make sure we’re telling the truth. There are people who are depending on us to shed light on these situations.”
Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh was the last to speak, and expressed her concern with “over criminalization” in general, which was a large reason why she supported the bill.
But, she added, the difference between transit police handing out civil versus criminal citations is negligible to those on the receiving end.
Finally, during the roll call vote, Allen quickly followed his “yes” with a final jab.
“And to the future voters in the room, this is what it looks like to debate before you vote,” Allen said to the group of 16- and 17-year-olds in the Council chambers, who were there to support a bill to lower the voting age.
Earlier in the meeting, Evans successfully motioned to table the voting-age bill, effectively killing it without debate.