clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Should evading fares on Metro be a crime?

D.C. lawmakers and the transit authority diverge on that question

A Metro station
LO Kin-hei/Shutterstock

It costs only a few dollars to ride Metro’s trains or buses, but it can cost up to $300 and 10 days of jail time to do so without paying the proper fare. Those penalties may soon change.

Last week, District legislators advanced a bill through the D.C. Council’s judiciary committee that would decriminalize Metro fare evasion—including gate-hopping in the subway system and boarding through the rear doors of buses—in favor of civil fines worth $50 at most. The bill would also impose $50 maximum civil fines for other unlawful conduct, such as playing a radio, smoking, consuming food or beverages, and riding on roller skates while taking Metro.

Proponents of the change say the current policies are too harsh, have negative side effects, and disproportionately impact people of color. But critics—including Metro and Jack Evans, the chair of Metro’s board and a D.C. councilmember—say the transit system fails to capture millions of dollars a year due to fare evasion, and arrests for it are much rarer than citations. What has emerged is a debate over fairness as Metro keeps bleeding ridership and revenue.

The legislation appears set to pass in the coming weeks, after full Council votes. A majority of councilmembers preliminarily signed onto it when Ward 8’s Trayon White introduced the proposal in July 2017, and it now has the backing of judiciary committee chair Charles Allen. That fare evasion may be decriminalized in D.C. by early 2019 drew praise from racial justice groups, like Stop Police Terror Project DC. (Maryland and Virginia would not be impacted.)

Still, Metro remains strongly opposed to the effort, according to Dan Stessel, a spokesman for the regional transit authority (WMATA). “We believe this approach would be unfair to the overwhelming majority of riders who pay their fare every time, and create a huge budget hole with no meaningful enforcement mechanism for addressing theft of service,” he tells Curbed.

Stessel also notes that last year, crime on the Metro system “plunged to its lowest level in more than a decade” while transit police cracked down on fare evasion. The enforcement has continued through 2018, especially at train stations where fare evasion is common, like Gallery Place–Chinatown and Anacostia. Per Metro, only 8 percent of stops for fare evasion lead to an arrest, and such arrests are usually for open warrants, assaults on police officers, or other serious charges. “We have no interest or incentive in taking officers off the system to process arrests for simple cases of fare evasion alone,” explains Stessel, Metro’s spokesman.

But during a judiciary committee meeting last Thursday, District lawmakers weighed other data. Allen, the chair, said that from January 2016 to February 2018, transit police stopped more than 30,000 people for alleged fare evasion and issued more than 20,000 citations and summonses, representing a major uptick over that time. Transit police arrested more than 2,000 people “after contacts that began with a fare-evasion stop,” said Allen, adding that nine in 10 people who had received a citation or summons were black, most of them men.

“The criminalization of minor, unwanted conduct is significantly more harmful than the failure to pay a $2 fare,” Allen argued. He said there was “no evidence” that the current penalties prevented future fare evasion or other criminal conduct aboard Metro, stating “arrests and citations simply will not solve what is a matter of economics for many low-income Washingtonians.” Allen also made an analogy between Metro fare evasion and not feeding the meter when parking on the street: “There’s never a scenario where I think I’m going to be walking away from my parked car in handcuffs because I didn’t pay the meter.”

Speaking in support of the bill, Ward 7 Councilmember Vince Gray said he found some of the data on fare evasion “deeply troubling.” “If [an arrest] doesn’t happen, fine,” Gray said. “But we shouldn’t be in a situation where someone could wind up in the criminal justice system as the result of fare evasion.” Meanwhile, Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh said she had talked with Evans, the chair of Metro’s board, who she said insisted that “the only time an arrest or criminal aspect comes into play is if you don’t pay the fine.” Allen said he would continue to recommend decriminalization as the measure heads toward full Council votes.

The legislature, which has 13 members, held a public hearing on the proposal last October.