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D.C. lawmakers reverse mayor’s veto against reducing penalties for Metro fare evasion

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The failure to pay a bus or subway fare is set to become a civil offense with a maximum $50 fine

A Metro bus in Northwest D.C.
The Washington Post/Getty Images

In the District, dodging fares on the Metro system is shortly expected to be downgraded to a civil offense carrying a potential fine of up to $50 from a criminal act with a $300 maximum penalty and up to 10 days in jail. A supermajority of D.C. councilmembers on Tuesday voted to override Mayor Muriel Bowser’s veto of a decriminalization bill they had passed last year.

The legislation now heads to Congress for a standard 30-day passive-review period required for District laws before they can go into effect. In negating her veto, the Council delivered a significant blow to Bowser and Metro, both of whom warned that public-safety and financial harms would result from the bill. This is the first time that the legislature has challenged and defeated a veto by Bowser, an ex-legislator who started her second mayoral term this month.

The veto-override was also a victory for Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, who as chair of the judiciary committee pushed the decriminalization bill through, and advocacy groups who lobbied for it, including the D.C. chapter of the ACLU and dozens of other organizations. They argued that treating fare evasion as a criminal offense does not deter gate-jumping or furtive bus-boarding and leads to disproportionate punishments. They additionally pointed to data showing that Metro transit police enforce fare-evasion policies mostly on black riders.

At the Council’s legislative meeting on Tuesday, Allen called those policies “failed,” saying they “overcriminalize” residents and address “an economic problem with a criminal-justice toolset.” “We live in a city where some of our neighbors are too poor to pay $2,” Allen noted. Referring to tough-on-crime policies, he said: “That ‘broken-windows’ thinking is an outright dismissal of what the evidence shows us, and it’s dangerous.” Bowser, during a wide-ranging radio interview on Friday, had said “lawlessness begets lawlessness” and she “fundamentally disagree[s] with the premise” that only some people should be obligated to pay to use Metro.

Metro, which said it loses at least $25 million a year in revenue because of fare evasion, and its largest union, which expressed concerns about attacks on transit workers, had supported Bowser’s veto. They and the two councilmembers who voted in support of the veto, Council Chairman Phil Mendelson and Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans (who also serves as chair of Metro’s board), described the failure to pay a Metro fare as “theft” from the transit system.

“We have a serious problem with fare evasion,” Mendelson said on Tuesday, noting that the bill, as written, does not lay out an adjudicative process for civil allegations of the act. “[The bill adopts] a laissez-faire approach that favors able-bodied individuals who can jump fare gates and who can pay,” he said. “Most of the fare evasion has nothing to do with poverty.”

Other councilmembers had different takes. Ward 3’s Mary Cheh, who voted to override the mayor’s veto out of concerns that criminal records for fare evasion can for years follow people alleged to have done it, said Metro’s position was “an attempt to scare people, and it doesn’t have a strong basis in fact.” At-Large Councilmember Robert White, who also voted against Bowser’s veto, said: “How could we allow ourselves in the tradition of legal disparities that punish the poor and people of color more? We have an inconsistency of laws.” Meanwhile, Ward 5’s Kenyan McDuffie said that although he supports “consequences” for fare evasion, he does not support “criminal” ones.

Bowser’s veto failed on an 11–2 vote. Before becoming mayor, she served on Metro’s board.