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D.C. Council approves decriminalizing fare evasion in the Metro system

A supermajority votes to lower penalties for jumping turnstiles and boarding buses without paying

Metro fare machines

Despite the pleas of Metro and the leaders of its board, the D.C. Council gave final approval on Tuesday to legislation that reclassifies fare evasion in the transit system as a civil offense.

On a 10–2 vote, District lawmakers passed a bill that makes the maximum penalty for failure to pay Metro fares in D.C. a civil citation with a $50 fine. Currently, fare evasion is treated as a crime punishable by as much as $300 in fines and 10 days in jail, though Metro says it does not arrest people for evading fares alone and generally issues warnings or citations instead. The bill also recategorizes as civil infractions other activities treated as crimes in the Metro system today, like playing a radio, smoking, eating and drinking, and riding on roller skates.

It now heads to Mayor Muriel Bowser and Congress for review with veto-proof supermajority support. In a statement, Bowser’s office says that while it has not formally received the final version of the measure, it does not expect to veto it. Still, the mayor’s office adds that “we do not believe the legislation makes us safer or stronger and hope the Council will immediately act on items that will.” Unless Congress takes action, the bill will become law early next year.

Metro spokesman Dan Stessel says the transit agency is “extremely disappointed” with the outcome, believing that it “will have significant safety and financial consequences for the region.” “We hope the Council will revisit this issue once these impacts are understood,” he notes in a statement. “Until then, Metro Transit Police will continue to do everything within their legal authority to protect our customers and employees.” Metro estimates that it loses at least $25 million a year in revenue because of fare evasion on its buses, and much more than that overall when accounting for fare evasion in its railways, which is more difficult to track.

Meanwhile, civil rights and racial justice groups hailed the Council’s move as a step toward reducing inequities between the black community and other groups. Nine in 10 people who are cited for fare evasion are black, according to data presented by Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen’s judiciary committee, which shepherded the legislation to passage. The D.C. chapter of the ACLU described the vote as “a significant victory for criminal justice reform.”

It also accused Metro of a “misinformation campaign,” as did Allen. “Low-level offenses like fare evasion are not a threat to public safety, enforcement unfairly targets black riders, and our current system of criminalization is both ineffective and excessive,” ACLU-DC argued in a statement. The group called Metro’s claim that it needs criminal penalties to inspect people who use the system “a naked admission that our transit agency relies on pretextual stops and racially profiles riders, [which is] something that should trouble everyone”—not just officials.

While the Council preliminarily approved its fare decriminalization bill in November, its vote on Tuesday came on the heels of intense advocacy on all sides. The executive committee of Metro’s board, chaired by Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, wrote to the Council in a Nov. 29 letter that decriminalizing fare evasion “would be unfair to the overwhelming majority of Metro riders...who pay their fares,” and that it would also cost the agency millions of dollars.

During lawmakers’ debate over the proposal, At-Large Councilmember Robert White, who supported the decriminalization effort, said in reply to such concerns: “I’m sad that Metro’s losing money, but I’m more sad about what’s happening to black people.” White and nine other councilmembers voted against a last-minute amendment by Council Chairman Phil Mendelson that would have kept fare evasion as a crime but removed the possibility of jail time and allowed for criminal fines of up to $50.

“It’s theft, stealing from the transit system,” Mendelson said of fare evasion. “It’s people who are deliberately trying to cheat.” Like the underlying bill itself, the amendment was rejected, 10–2. (The Council has 13 members, but Ward 5’s Kenyan McDuffie was “on travel,” per one of his staffers.) “Let’s just move beyond this bill,” Evans said before the final vote took place.