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D.C. mayor vetoes bill to decriminalize fare evasion on Metro, warning of ‘lawlessness’

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The lead sponsor of the legislation, though, says he will seek to override the veto

The D.C. Metro
Sean Pavone/Shutterstock

In her second-ever veto, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser has moved to overturn a bill that would reclassify fare avoidance on the Metro system from a criminal act to a civil offense. Bowser on Wednesday sent a veto letter to the D.C. Council, saying the legislation would “be to the detriment of” Metro and commuters. Echoing arguments made recently by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), she said decriminalizing fare evasion would likely “encourage lawlessness” in the District and “exacerbate” WMATA’s financial problems.

But in a swift rebuke, Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, who chairs the body’s judiciary committee and saw the bill through to passage, said he would seek to override the veto—an effort that requires a two-thirds vote. In November and December, the measure passed with with ostensibly veto-proof majorities on first and second readings, despite Metro’s concerns.

“We create more public safety problems than we solve by criminalizing something as small as not being able to pay a $2 bus fare,” Allen said in a statement on Wednesday night. “I will be moving to override the Mayor’s veto of this important criminal justice reform and working with my colleagues to ensure the will of the Council is upheld.” A vote is poised to happen in the coming weeks, as D.C.’s Home Rule Charter and Council rules set a 30-day review period.

In her letter, Bowser cited estimates provided by Metro during the legislative process that the authority loses between $25 million and $50 million in revenue annually due to unpaid fares. The bill “removes criminal penalties while failing to set up a new civil adjudicative process,” she noted. According to Bowser, that means Metro can no longer compel riders to pay fares.

“I want to be clear that I understand and share the Council’s goal of mitigating the impacts of criminal justice involvement, especially on people of color,” the mayor wrote, referencing a primary impetus for the legislation. She also pointed to a bill she has reintroduced this year that would mandate automatic record-sealing for certain unprosecuted (“no paper”) charges.

The “Fare Evasion Decriminalization Act of 2018,” originally introduced by Ward 8’s Trayon White in 2017, makes the maximum penalty for failing to pay Metro fares in D.C. a $50 civil fine. Previously, fare evasion could result in up to a $300 fine and 10 days in jail. Metro has said transit police generally just issue citations for fare evasion and make arrests for it only when the deed coincides with an open warrant or a more serious offense, such as an assault.

Still, proponents of the measure, including the District chapters of the ACLU and Black Lives Matter, recounted fare evasion incidents that escalated into police use of force or appeared to entail stops and frisks. They argued that enforcement disproportionately impacts black riders, and that the consequences of having a criminal record for fare evasion can hinder a person for years in housing and other areas.

Opponents of decriminalizing fare avoidance, such as Council Chairman Phil Mendelson and Ward 2’s Jack Evans, who chairs the board of Metro, cast the act as theft from the transit system and unfair to riders who do pay fares. In a statement on Wednesday, Metro praised Bowser for her veto. So did ATU Local 689, Metro’s biggest union, which called fare evasion “theft” and advocated for $2 flat fares and financial assistance for low-income riders. The union said the bill “encourages more evasion that leads to assaults on bus operators and station managers,” and creates tension in the transit system.

As of Thursday morning, at least two other councilmembers, both at-large, said they support Allen’s plans for maneuvering to squash Bowser’s veto. Both had voted for decriminalization.

Bowser submitted her inaugural veto last summer, more than three years into her first term. It was against a supermajority-backed bill designed to update the city’s graduation policies.