When District officials made bicycle registration mandatory for residents, in 1972, the move was intended to help deter theft and aid in recovering stolen bikes.

But for Jason Haber, who until recently was riding without registration, the rule had the opposite effect. Last month, he lost his ride to the D.C. cops.

Around 1 a.m. on Dec. 21, Haber says, he was taking his usual shortcut home, steering his black Trek mountain bike through a dark, unmarked Van Ness alley that runs parallel to Connecticut Avenue NW. He was riding without a headlight—because, he says, it had been stolen a few days earlier.

As Haber approached Albemarle Street NW, a D.C. police officer got out of a parked cruiser and signaled for him to stop. For the headlight infraction, the officer slapped him with a $5 ticket.

Then the officer discovered that the bike had no registration tag. For that, he told Haber, the bike would have to be impounded.

Haber was dumbfounded. “You’re stealing my bike?” he recalls saying. Unfazed, the officer stashed Haber’s bike in the trunk and drove off, with Haber shouting, “Stop, thief!” after him.

Registration costs only a dollar, but many cyclists are unaware of the requirement—or of the stiff cost of noncompliance. Within 14 days of buying a new or used bike, or of becoming a District resident, a cyclist must fill out an application at the nearest police station and provide written evidence of ownership.

Some cycling advocates say the burden of proof weighs too heavily on owners, particularly new residents who already have bikes.

For Haber, who had bought and registered his bike in Lake Charles, La., in 1997, it took nearly two weeks to come up with proof of ownership and free his bike from an impound lot in Anacostia. “I spent the whole friggin’ holidays poring through my records,” he says.

Unable to find a receipt, Haber says, he eventually had to get the Lake Charles police to fax him a copy of the registration certificate. He is contesting his $5 ticket, citing the collateral costs of taking time off work to fetch his bike from across the river. Luckily for Haber, he also owns a car.

Although D.C. regulations authorize police to confiscate unregistered bikes, it’s “not a real common practice,” says Lt. Patrick Burke, traffic-safety coordinator for the Metropolitan Police Department.

“Officers are more likely to impound bikes if it’s a suspicious situation,” Burke says. Riding through a dark alley without a light, as Haber was, fits the bill. “Obviously, the guy posed some sort of safety hazard,” Burke says, “which is why the officer pulled him over in the first place.”

“We have a lot of bikes stolen [in that area],” adds Cmdr. Jeff Moore of the 2nd District. “We do our best to approach bicyclists who operate in violation of the traffic or municipal regs. This appears to be just that type of situation.”

Plenty of other District cyclists are unregistered and therefore run the same risks as Haber. “People don’t keep receipts for bicycles for years and years,” says Rudi Schreiber, chair of the D.C. Bicycle Advisory Council, an appointed panel that makes cycling-related recommendations to city officials.

Proving ownership is especially tough, Schreiber says, when a bike is bought second-hand, online, or at a yard sale. “Some people build bikes themselves,” he adds. “There’s no way you’re going to get proof of ownership through that.”

Schreiber confesses that even he hasn’t complied with the rule. “The bikes that I’ve bought recently, I bought through the Internet,” he says. “I don’t have anything but electronic transactions to prove that I own them.” CP