Next time you think about driving home after happy hour, think again: As a result of its customary bureaucratic inertia, the District of Columbia is doling out some added, if unintentional, punishment for drunken drivers. If you’re caught, not only will your license be suspended, but your car may be fed to the wolves.
One night in March, Pat (last name withheld to protect the guilty) made an illegal left turn at the corner of 18th Street and Columbia Road NW. The police record noted that he smelled like booze and registered .08 percent on the Breathalyzer—just under the legally drunk standard of .10 percent, but enough to get him in trouble. The cops hauled Pat to the 3rd District Metropolitan Police headquarters at 17th and V and charged him with driving under the influence of alcohol; his 1992 Toyota Camry, meanwhile, went to the 3rd District impound lot in the 1200 block of 9th Street NW.
Pat’s blood-alcohol level wasn’t his only problem. His license plates had expired. Upon his release three hours later, he was told to secure new tags before reclaiming his car. A week later, new plates in hand, Pat made the trip to the impound lot. I came along as the designated driver, since Pat was no longer a licensee in good standing.
But my chauffeuring services had been rendered unnecessary by some enterprising thieves. Both of the car’s rear tires were missing, stolen from under the noses of the police. The amateur mechanics had actually used a Toyota jack to elevate Pat’s Camry off the ground. “Damn, these guys are professionals,” Pat muttered, inspecting the damage. “This [jack] isn’t from my car.” The officer who had escorted us to the auto graveyard gave us a sympathetic look and shrugged.
That night, before Pat could arrange for towing, vandals broke his car’s front passenger window and removed the stereo and speakers, as well as a third tire. After a week in the District’s safekeeping, Pat’s car would need $3,000 worth of parts and labor.
“If [the police] had warned me,” griped Pat, “that the lot wasn’t safe…I would have busted my ass to get it out of there. But they said nothing.”
Nestled on 9th Street among rows of boarded-up and burned-out town houses, the 3rd District impound lot is a veritable roach motel for the vehicles of drunks, thieves, and drug dealers: Cars check in, but they don’t check out. Only three of the cars in this auto lockup are in any shape to be driven. Makeshift jacks and cinder blocks have been employed to grab tires from the 59 others. The lot’s inmates range from 1970 sedans (and one taxicab) to a few brand-new sport utility vehicles, and at least one window in each has been smashed in a search for electronic goodies. A pair of signs on the chain-link, barbed wire–reinforced fence proclaim, “NO TRESPASSING—DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA GOVERNMENT PROPERTY” and “THIS LOT PATROLLED BY POLICE K-9.” But judging from the floor mats, beverage holders, maps, clothes, and broken glass scattered all over the pavement, no one takes the postings seriously.
Empty cans and broken bottles of beer—perhaps obtained across the street at Modern Liquor—litter the lot’s perimeter. It’s easy to picture: Under cover of night, the salvage team consumes a liter of liquid courage before climbing through the gaping hole in the fence to strip down the new arrivals.
That’s right—the gaping hole in the fence. The sliding gate facing 9th Street is fastened with chain and padlock, but the neatly cut opening on the alley behind the lot is large enough to spirit through just about any part with resale value. In all fairness to the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD), another gap has been covered with a loose car hood. But if you’re thinking about picking up a new set of whitewalls, act fast; almost everything good is already gone.
For a set of radials, you might check the next block, on the corner of 8th and M Streets. That’s where the 1st District impound lot houses a comparably motley bunch of derelict automobiles. Three of the openings cut in its fence have been meticulously mended, but the repair crew must have missed the fourth. If you’re still out of luck, a gas station across M Street offers—ironically—stacks upon stacks of used tires for sale.
Earl is a tired-looking man who lives across from the 3rd District impound wasteland. He’s sitting guard on a stoop facing the lot when I ask him if he ever sees any shady business over there. “Sure, you can’t help but to see it,” he exclaims. “Motherfuckers just drive by, see it, and take what they want.
“You see that white van over there?” Earl asks, pointing out a shiny Plymouth minivan resting on its naked axles. Its driver’s window is broken, and wires protrude from a hole in the dashboard. “That came in here with four tires. Now, you see, it don’t have none. You’re in there for two days, you’re lucky if you get your car back. You go in with a car, and come out with a piece of junk….The police don’t give a shit.”
Inspector Sonya Proctor and Capt. Marcus Westover, commander of the 3rd District, did not return calls about the impound lot. So the question of whether the police do give a shit is somewhat unresolved. But Officer Juanita Brown of the inspector’s office did listen to my questions. “I’m totally unaware that there is a hole in the fence, so I will make mention of it to the inspector, and I’m quite sure they will fix it,” she offered.
MPD unquestionably has more pressing priorities than protecting lawbreakers’ cars. The troubling part of the 9th Street equation is the city’s all-too-apparent indifference to its responsibility to protect its citizens’ property.
A survey of D.C.’s other police districts revealed that not every offender’s car is dropped into the laps of potential burglars. Cars seized in the 6th or 7th District end up in Southwest next to Blue Plains, as close to the middle of nowhere as you can get within District limits. Cars abandoned, booted, or towed for parking indiscretions—and some of the cars seized in the 2nd, 4th, and 5th Districts—go to 1100 Brentwood Rd. NE, which is maintained by the Department of Public Works and patrolled by round-the-clock security. The Brentwood lot, down the street from the BET building, lies in a commercial area full of thriving businesses, away from the urban decay that marks the neighborhood near 8th and 9th Streets. As far as I could tell, the only commercial activity on 9th Street consists of the sale of singles at the liquor store and an independent vendor who approached me to sell diabetic syringes.
Soon after the encounter with the syringe peddler, Officer Bernard Tabron of the MPD showed up to open the gate to the lot for a Budget Rent A Car employee. Budget had sent a tow truck to retrieve a rented Ford Taurus that had been used by an unauthorized driver. Both of the Ford’s left tires were missing, and the bare wheels made a terrible screech as they were dragged across the bed of the truck. The tow-truck driver gaped in wonder at a Nissan Pathfinder that must have been damaged goods on arrival; not only was a tire missing, a side window broken, and the stereo ripped out, but the remaining three tires were worn to the radials, the air bag deployed, and the hood crumpled.
I pointed out the condition of the lot to an impassive Officer Tabron. “There’s a hole in the fence?” he asked. “There must be some nice things to observe here, huh?” Turning to leave, I assured him that there were.