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Around 10 p.m. on July 15, on Benton Street NW, two young women carry laundry to their car and set the overflowing baskets on top. Sitting in a police cruiser, Metropolitan Police Department Reserve Officer Christopher Lively watches as the car’s spotlight shines on their Pennsylvania tag. “Better hurry up, honey,” Lively says, under his breath, from the passenger seat.
Instead, the women pause and stare confusedly at the stopped police car. They look at their illuminated license plate, then back at the cruiser. Their mouths are agape, and they’re squinting. As they stand there, Lively records their license-plate number in his laptop. “OK,” he says. “We have them in there now.” The cruiser pulls away, and the women, uncomprehending, wave goodbye.
Lively is patrolling to enforce the District’s Registration of Out-of-State Automobiles (ROSA) program, which seeks to persuade residents to properly register their cars with D.C. by issuing $100 tickets for failure to comply.
Lively, a Glover Park lifer and advisory neighborhood commissioner, has been a reserve police officer since May of 2002. (He felt a greater need for community volunteerism after the Sept. 11 attacks, so he decided to join the department.) But he’s been tracking out-of-state offenders since the late ’90s, when he and four neighbors, rankled by a lack of parking spaces, began jotting down tag numbers in three-ring binders. The curbside posse would then set out each week in the company of a police officer, who would issue an average of five ROSA tickets a night.
In 2000, Lively and his crew designed their own Microsoft Access database program to monitor the scofflaws. Soon, with technology on their side, they were able to help their officer to issue 25 of the $100 whammys per night.
At the time, Glover Parkwhich has 1,500 on-street spaces for 10,000 residentsaccounted for more than half of all ROSA citations in the city. Impressed by the numbers, the police department adopted the computer program citywide in September 2002.
Once he graduated from the police-reserves training program last spring, Lively could issue ROSA tickets by his own power. “I’ve been very vocal about community policing,” he says. “And I’ve been very vocal about ROSA.”
Driving down Benton, Lively and his partner, Officer Tony McElwee, can’t go more than 10 feet at a time without halting to flag a car in the computer, issue a first warning, or drop a citation on the windshield. Every few minutes Lively will chirp “Ticket!” the way a short-order cook might say “Next!” at a lunch counter.
Lively says his patrols have ticketed some cars up to 20 times apiece since 1999. He remembers ticketing an early-’70s Mustang with California tags at least five times in 2000 and 2001. “That guy tried to get trickier and trickier, moving farther from his home,” Lively says.
When it comes to D.C. residents who maintain out-of-state tags, Lively has a kind of iceberg theory: There’s definite car-insurance fraud. There could be income-tax fraud. There could be homestead-property tax-exemption fraud. There could even be skipping out on jury duty. “All these things grew out of us looking for additional parking spaces,” he says. “Just curbside management.”
Because of the fraud implications and the lost tax dollars, Lively is pushing for a program that would allow the city to go after out-of-state cars kept on private property. Though he can’t do anything about them just yet, he likes to keep tabs on them.
He proves his point driving down an alley off 39th Street NW, where about two-thirds of the cars are registered out of state. He knows them as if they were his own: “Those cars have been here two years. These ones, two years. That one, six months. This guy will be two years in May. These folks just moved in, so they don’t count. This car here, three years.”
After three years of ticketing, he says, it hasn’t gotten stale. “Drive down the street and you see it,” he says. “Massachusetts. Ohio. Texas. Florida. You start to get ticked off. We’re not gonna to take it. We’re gonna be proactive.” CP