DC Speed Cameras: Municipal Extortion

WaPo humor columnist Gene Weingarten doesn't think DC's speed cameras are funny.

WaPo humor columnist Gene Weingarten doesn’t think DC’s speed cameras are funny.

In Washington, the default speed limit is 25 miles an hour, meaning that any time the city decides it wants to rustle up some extra cash — or perhaps just because it has prostate problems and is feeling grumpy — it simply has to set up a speed camera on a street on which no sane person would go as slow as 25 miles an hour. One example would be the wide stretch of Michigan Avenue NE on which John was popped. Another would be the six-lane highway that is M Street SE, on which I was recently zinged multiple times on successive days, for $125 each, until the snail mail started catching up with the tickets and I discovered I had a serious problem.

This sounds a lot like municipal extortion, doesn’t it?

I do not use the term “extortion” lightly, but, being a responsible journalist, I am going to give the city a chance to defend its system. So here is an official response from the mayor of Washington: “You shut up about this or we will break your thumbs.”

Possibly you are thinking that even though a machine-driven system is cold and unyielding, once you get into court and actual human people take over, things become much more reasonable.

At this moment, John and I are being addressed by a hearing examiner who is reading robotically from a computer screen. She is telling us that, unlike a person — say, a police officer — a speed camera is presumed to be inviolate and infallible as long as its accuracy has been certified by a radar technician. You may not challenge it, she said: You will get off only if you can establish that you personally were not driving the car because, say, it was stolen. (By this logic, if the camera said you were traveling at twice the speed of sound, you’d have to dummy up and pay the fine.) I feel John shudder beside me.

But then he begins to speak. He doesn’t deny he was driving the car, or even that he wasn’t — by the city’s ridiculously low speed limit — “speeding.” But, unlike the other defendants in the room, John has a thick dossier in front of him. It contains records of his attempts, online, to subpoena from the D.C. police arcane documents tangentially related to his case — including a year’s worth of maintenance records on the radar machine that nailed him, a copy of the contract between the city and the company that services the radar, including “all attachments and exhibits thereto,” etc. It’s all nuts, but it’s also his legal right to see this stuff. And the city never responded to his requests.

This troubles the hearing examiner. She doesn’t seem to understand simple common-sense arguments related to humans acting in reasonable fashion, but paper — paper seems to rule. Paper was requested, and the city didn’t supply it in a timely fashion! Case …dismissed!

The District operates parking enforcement the same way. Long stretches of curb are unmarked with signs. Cars park there, often by the dozen. Said cars are ticketed for violating zoning restrictions not obvious to someone looking at the parking meters. There is no meaningful system of appeal.

This is the stuff of Third World countries. And the capitol of the world’s greatest democracy.

FILED UNDER: Democracy, Law and the Courts, , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Andyman says:


    I wonder if DC is leaning more heavily on speed cameras and meter maids- both car-related revenue sources- because they function as the de facto commuter taxes that the District isn’t allowed to implement but wants so badly.

    I tend to have sympathy for the DC municipal government. It’s in a terrible situation: it can’t collect property taxes on its most valuable land, it can’t collect income taxes from its highest-earning workers, and Congress is constantly nitpicking at the measures it does take. Unlike, say, Baltimore, where the corrosive effect of “white flight” is mitigated by redistributing state-level taxes back into the city from the suburbs, DC is left to fend for itself with a resident population that isn’t exactly fertile ground for revenue-raising.

    Instead of targeting “speeders” and quasi-illegal parking, I’d prefer a congestion tax with tollbooths on, say, the bridges into Virginia and the major routes into Maryland. Otherwise i think the recurring talk of retrocession shows that the situation isn’t tenable in the long term.

  2. James Joyner says:

    @Andyman: Fair points. I’m not a fan of commuter taxes–talk about taxation without representation!–but agree that DC is in a very bizarre situation in terms of ability to collect revenue.

  3. John Burgess says:

    DC residents, even those with residential zone parking permits, are ticketed regularly. I don’t have the numbers to show that whether commuters are ticketed more or less frequently, but residents do not receive any sort of immunity.

    They suffer, too, from little-known regulations like the prohibition on having a car parked in one spot for more than 24 hours. It’s not always enforced, but it’s always there to be enforced.

    Then there’s the one through which any accident involving the driver of a parked vehicle leaving said vehicle into traffic, via the driver-side door is presumptively guilty and will be charged.

    Oh… don’t have an accident in DC while you’re backing up, either. Unless you’re the Mayor or have diplomatic tags, you’re going to get charged with negligent driving.

  4. JKB says:

    Wait, didn’t you get the memo, you are not suppose to drive in DC, they have that public transportation that is the answer to all questions.

    Andyman: “white flight” is passe, now the middle class blacks are also vacating the urban war zones as fast as possible. This is as it was suppose to by with many Democrat machines imposing the “Curley Effect” to get rid of those troublesome middle class voters who can balance a checkbook.

  5. jd says:

    I worked there for 30 years before retiring to Florida. I know of what you speak. But I suggest the congestion tax be collected on the way INTO the District or there won’t be enough road to line up on.