Last summer, after a teenager joy-riding in a stolen car killed an elderly District-government employee, Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous headed down to the streets around the Benning Terrace public-housing complex, which the victim called home. Fed-up residents gave Chavous an earful of complaints and suggestions, “some good, some bad,” recalls Eric Rogers, Chavous’ chief of staff. “A lady blurted out, ‘You need to take [the parents’] driver’s license away.’”
The idea stuck. In October, Chavous introduced a proposal that would allow judges to suspend the licenses of parents of juveniles who have committed crimes.
Chavous’ measure, which is before the D.C. Council, is not alone. Local law enforcement already has the power to suspend the driving privileges of suspected drunk drivers and convicted drug buyers. And several D.C. lawmakers hope to leverage driving privileges as a means of combating quality-of-life crimes.
In addition to Chavous’ proposal, Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans wants to send would-be johns home with more than an empty wallet and a fear of gonorrhea. Next month, he plans to introduce a bill giving police the power to seize their vehicles for at least 24 hours. “I call it the ‘Honey, I lost the car’ bill,” says Evans.
At a community meeting in early December, an audience of Shepherd Park residents broke into applause after City Administrator Robert Bobb suggested that D.C. impound the cars of anyone charged with buying drugs. Bobb helped launch a similar initiative in Oakland, Calif., called Operation Beat Feet.
“Driving is a privilege that can be revoked by the government,” Rogers says. “It’s a way of eliciting certain social behavior.’”
Few District agencies have as much persuasive force as the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). Law-and-order types have already reaped benefits from codifying one of the most torturous experiences that District citizens endure—dealing with the DMV—as a formal punishment.
Key to the agency’s emergence as an enforcement arm is the DMV’s 2-year-old Destiny computer system, which can collect data from other agencies and, if necessary, put a hold on a person’s license or registration. “The Department of Motor Vehicles seems to be very good at keeping people from getting a license,” says Rogers.
When DMV officials rolled out Destiny, the agency touted its ability to help enforce the District’s 1996 Clean Hands Law, which prohibits anyone who owes the city back taxes or fines from obtaining a D.C. license or permit.
By now, D.C. residents know the drill: If you don’t pay your child support or that parking ticket from 1982, you don’t get your license or tags. Starting next year, unpaid income taxes or property taxes will also keep you from getting behind the wheel.
“There was no conscious effort to get into major law enforcement,” former DMV Director Sherryl Hobbs Newman says. “But since we have access to people and our system has the capability, we can assist another agency.”
The impoundment measures Evans proposes would be implemented by the Metropolitan Police Department. Suspending the licenses and confiscating the vehicles of wrongdoers is common practice in many other jurisdictions, including Philadelphia and Chicago. In D.C., people convicted of even misdemeanor drug possession can face the suspension of their licenses.
The courts will have to sign off on the new crop of proposals. The Oakland ordinance that Bobb wants to bring to D.C., for instance, allows police to seize autos at the time of arrest, before the defendant goes to trial. State courts have upheld the law.
D.C. courts may not be as accommodating. The Evans proposal is a refinement of a 1992 law that the courts threw out several years ago. The 1992 law allowed police to seize the vehicle of anyone caught attempting to solicit sex, if the driver was the owner of the car. Police would hold the car until the defendant went to trial. Within the first six weeks of the law’s enactment, the city seized about 50 vehicles, including a bicycle, says Evans.
Back then, those picked up for soliciting had to go to court to retrieve their autos, says Evans. And not all owners got their cars back. The courts later declared the law unconstitutional, ruling that the punishment—the loss of a car worth as much as $20,000—far exceeded the crime, which is a misdemeanor.
This time around, Evans is modeling his legislation after drunk-driving laws, which have passed constitutional muster. If it passes, when police pick up a john, they will impound his car. Once released, the john will have to pay storage fees before retrieving his vehicle. If he pleads or is found guilty of soliciting, he will have to pay a fine and attend “john school” to expunge the conviction from his record. If he doesn’t pay the fine, he will run afoul of the DMV.
Even if Evans clears every legal hurdle, shaming johns may backfire on the District in other ways. The city will have to find a place to put all the confiscated vehicles. According to Evans, the city had the same problem back in the early ’90s, when his earlier “Honey, I lost the car” law, in practice, became “Honey, the impound lot is full.”
The Metropolitan Police Department keeps civilian vehicles at its Blue Plains Impoundment Lot, but only if they are part of evidence. “We are not in the business of storing cars. Period,” says spokesperson Officer Junis Fletcher. When police confiscate cars of people arrested on drunk-driving charges, they have them towed them to one of several private lots the city has contracts with, says Fletcher. And a handful of those cars end up at the D.C. Department of Public Works impound lot on Addison Road each month, according to agency spokesperson Mary Myers.
The city-owned lot can’t accommodate a flood of confiscated john cars, says Myers, who notes that the Addison Road facility has a maximum capacity of 500 vehicles. According to U.S. Attorney’s Office spokesperson Channing Phillips, last year his office prosecuted approximately 700 men on solicitation charges. CP