It’s no surprise that the Brentwood Impoundment Lot, the Distict’s home for towed cars in Northeast, does a booming business.
On any given day, about 650 towed cars languish in the lot, says Norma Mapp, the lot’s director. Assuming they have no outstanding tickets, some lucky drivers need only fork over the $75 towing fee to retrieve their cars. They then have two weeks to contest or pay their $50 parking fines. The rest of us don’t get off so easy.
“We were laughing just the other day because one car brought in here had 23 outstanding tickets and owed $6,045,” said Jeanne Jones, an impoundment lot attendant for the past six years. Average retrieval costs run around $600, she reports. “We let them know they have 45 days to come pay and get their cars, or we send them to Blue Plains.” Despite the enchanting name, Blue Plains is a Southeast lot where cars get auctioned off each month.
If your car has ever been towed, you know the terror that grips your heart when you realize your beloved lifeline is suddenly gone. And if the District wanted whopping sums in exchange for your towed car, then you almost certainly know the burning desire to take it right back out of the impoundment lot.
That’s how I felt in July 1991, two months after I moved to Washington. My beat-up 1985 Subaru GL still displayed Connecticut tags when I parked downtown for work on the 1400 block of I Street NW. Even though I fed the meters, my windshield was slapped with a few pink parking tickets totaling $200. One ticket was actually for an empty meter, but the others resulted from my drastic offense of having an expired emmissions sticker. I felt wronged.
But I was planning on getting Virginia plates, so I foolishly ignored the tickets, hoping they would just go away. About a month later, I discovered my Subaru booted and immobile, awaiting the tow. When I called District parking officials, I learned my fines had doubled twice, to an outrageous $800. My car wasn’t even worth that much.
The next day, I Metroed down to D.C. Traffic Court at 600 K St. NE, naively thinking a sympathetic judge might understand my plight. I hoped to pay my initial fines of $200 and retrieve my car. But I knew I was in deep doodoo when the judge slam-dunked the cases called before mine, generally people fighting a single infraction. I finally stood before the judge and apologized for my mistake of not paying the fines on time, showing him my bank records and a note from my boss explaining my dire financial situation. I had just started a job and had drained almost all my money for my new apartment’s rent and security deposit. So I asked the judge to have mercy.
But the judge apparently did not know the word. He scolded me in front of the packed courtroom, barking at me to “grow up and act responsibly.” He said I’d have to fork over $800 if I wanted my car back.
“But I don’t have $800,” I whined back. “And I need my car for work.”
The judge would have none of this. He suggested I come up with the cash quickly, reminding me that I’d be charged an additional $10 storage fee for each day my car sat in the impoundment lot. Then he dismissed me and called the next case, leaving me stunned and stammering.
As I wandered out of the courthouse, down the street from Union Station, my disbelief quickly turned to anger. The judge had not only shown no sympathy, he seemed to have gone out of his way to humiliate me. So my thoughts turn to justice. Some might call it revenge.
I hopped on the Metro and walked the rest of the way to the city-run Brentwood lot in Northeast. To enter the lot, which is surrounded by 10-foot-high chain-link fences topped by barbed wire, I had to pass through a trailer where you’re supposed to show proof of paid fines.
I explained to the city employee working the desk that I needed to retrieve my umbrella and some other items from my car, but he told me I could not enter the lot until I paid my fines. Thinking quickly, I pulled out my expired Connecticut driver’s license (I already had a new Virginia one), and asked if he would hold it as collateral while I quickly ran to my car and grabbed my things. He agreed.
My baby was parked about 150 yards from the gate. I climbed in and turned the ignition. With my heart jumping, I waited for what seemed like forever until another car in the lot approached the gate, the driver presumably having shown proof of paid fines. The chain-link gate opened slowly, electronically jerking to the side as it opened. One uniformed security officer stood nearby and another employee, a fat man, lounged in a chair by the gate, oblivious to my slow approach behind the other car.
The car was allowed to exit when I was about 75 yards away, and the security guard pushed the button to close the gate. It was do-or-die for me at this point, so I gunned the engine and charged toward the gate, which was slowly closing in its jerky, side-to-side motion.
Realizing a breakout was in progress, the security guard began yelling and jumping up and down. The fat man sprung from his chair, waving his hands, screaming, “Stop!” No way! I kept the pedal to the metal, gaining speed quickly as I shifted gears. Just as the gap was disappearing I shot through, almost grazing the gate with the side of my Subaru. The light was red at the interesection on Brentwood Road, but I blazed through it, screeching and skidding as I swerved into the turn at about 40 mph. The sharp turn sent the car fishtailing, but the tires regained their grip on the road, burning rubber as I sped away. Looking back at the stunned security guard and the fat man, I waved goodbye and whooped aloud in sweet victory.
I raced to Virginia, not sure if someone can be charged with “stealing” his own car. I didn’t drive in the District again until I switched to Virginia tags a few weeks later. I would have paid my $200 in District fines if the judge had let me. But instead I paid nothing, and I got my Subaru back. And I discovered it still handles quite well.CP