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Routine traffic stop ends in $905 in fines

Monday - 10/28/2013, 11:57am  ET

russell1.jpg
Two of Anna Russell's tickets from a total of six. These are for obstructing a crosswalk and unnecessarily using her horn. (Courtesy Anna Russell)
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WASHINGTON - Last Tuesday, D.C. driver Anna Russell was pulled over for a routine traffic stop and ended up receiving six tickets.

In total, she owes $905.

After hearing about the WTOP TicketBuster series, Russell spoke about her ordeal exclusively with WTOP.

"I was on 8th Street in the Barracks Row intersection. It's kind of a funny intersection where D Street, Pennsylvania Avenue and 8th Street all intersect. I was looking ahead at the green light in front of me and all of a sudden a pedestrian stepped out in front of my car. Startled, I slammed on my brakes and honked my horn to get her attention and make sure I didn't hit her," says Russell.

Thankfully, Russell didn't hit the pedestrian and nobody was injured. But, moments later, a Metropolitan Police Department officer activated her sirens and pulled Russell over near the Eastern Market Metro Station's D Street SE intersection. Two officers came out, including Aminatta Sesay, a D.C. police officer.

However, what Russell thought would be routine traffic stop was anything but.

"Even from the get-go, her demeanor was very accusatory and that I was doing something intentionally wrong," says Russell.

"Then I was sitting there for almost 20 minutes, before the officer returned. At the time, I thought I would be scolded or get a small ticket for not yielding to the pedestrian. But when she came back she had a stack full of tickets in her hand."

In total, she received six tickets adding up to $905 in fines. The tickets confirm Russell's account on time, showing that the first ticket was printed at 10:56 p.m. and the last one at 11:12 p.m.

Officer Sesay issued two tickets for failure to yield to a pedestrian ($250) and obstructing a crosswalk ($50) -- but the tickets didn't stop there.

One citation was a seat belt violation. The passenger had her strap under her arm, rather than over her shoulder. Another ticket was for unnecessary noise from a horn ($25).

"She says I was constantly blowing. In actuality, I laid my hand on the horn to get the attention of the pedestrian so she'd be aware of what was going on," says Russell.

She demonstrated how it sounded, saying it didn't last for more than a second or two and did not constitute constant blowing. She also objects to the seat belt violation.

"The officer explained that as a driver, I need to be aware of the safety of my passengers in that same tone of 'you should know better and how dare you.' But she had the belt clipped in, and it was strapped around her torso, so I think she was just wanting to write as many tickets as possible. I'm not sure whether she was doing it for financial reasons or she just had a bad day," she says.

One Maryland police chief, who spoke to WTOP on condition of anonymity, says he finds the seat belt ticket bizarre.

"The new law in Maryland that went into effect in October requires all passengers to have a seat belt on. But I've never heard of anyone in my jurisdiction or any other that's received a ticket for that situation," he said.

Russell is also upset about the interaction with Officer Sesay regarding her insurance. She received two tickets totaling $530 for what she describes as a simple mistake: Grabbing the wrong insurance card.

"When a police officer comes up to your car and ask for your pieces, you're kind of flustered, you're reaching into the glove compartment and grabbing the first thing you see. So I handed those three pieces. She asked if those were the three and I said 'yes' and she never warned me they were out of date," says Russell.

"But I do have a valid insurance card in my purse. I just handed her the wrong card accidentally."

Russell further asserts that Officer Sesay never gave her a second chance to produce a valid insurance card, which she did have on her.

Russell showed WTOP the insurance card which verified her valid policy through mid-January 2014.

WTOP contacted MPD's spokeswoman Gwen Crump about the case.

"I can't comment on the specifics of this situation. If an individual is concerned about an interaction with a member of MPD, we encourage them to file a complaint with MPD's Internal Affairs Bureau (IAB) or the Office of Police Complaints," she writes in a statement.

"The law specifically requires: (1) police to ask for proof of insurance; and (2) if the driver cannot provide proof of insurance, for police to cite the driver for both failing to SHOW and failing to HAVE insurance. The latter citation is the $500 fine, but it can be waived upon appeal to DMV if the driver can prove that the vehicle was indeed insured at the time of the stop," writes Crump, referring to DC Code 5-114.02.

We contacted Crump on the phone to ask her whether Sesay offered her multiple opportunities to produce the valid insurance card, and what standard operating procedure was for the agency.

"I cannot comment on that. I'm not going to get into that. I would prefer to use what I sent you as my statement on this matter," says Crump.

Member of the D.C. City Council Jim Graham says he doesn't like the no-comment position from MPD. Russell lives in Ward 1 and Graham is her councilman.

"It bothers me that a few days after all these tickets were issued, we don't have any explanation from the Metropolitan Police Department. In other words, I understand it takes a day or two to assemble the facts, but we should have a public comment in a case with this extraordinary amount of tickets amounting to over $900 from a single incident. There should be a comment from MPD. I think her response is upsetting," says Graham, calling the situation "screwy."

Three police chiefs, who agreed to talk to WTOP on condition of anonymity, tell WTOP that they expect their officers to offer drivers every opportunity possible to present valid paperwork before issuing a ticket. Two chiefs are from Maryland, one from Virginia.

"I teach my officers discretion. The bottom line is that as long as they produce an insurance card, the Motor Vehicle Administration (MVA) doesn't indicate there is an insurance lapse. It's good enough for me," says one Maryland police chief.

"In my jurisdiction, this driver would have been given every opportunity. Our officer would ask whether she had a current card and I would be disappointed if one my officers issued such a ticket without giving the driver every opportunity to produce it."

This police chief even went so far as to suggest Russell file a complaint with D.C. Police Internal Affairs on the matter.

"I trust my officers judgment and I don't even have a policy on this issue. But I would hope if a driver presented a document that was, on its face, not valid, that my officers would say, 'This is an old insurance card. Do you have a new one? Is there any way I can verify the insurance?' I would expect that they'd be given an opportunity. We're not playing gotcha, so I believe my officers would do that," says the Virginia police chief.

This chief tells WTOP he doesn't have a specific policy on this issue because he trusts his officers will do the right thing.

"If I pulled over a driver and she didn't present me a valid insurance or registration card, I would say, 'This is last year's. Can you please give me this year's card?' People often put the papers in their glove compartment box and you don't necessarily put them in chronological order. Sometimes a driver is flustered, so it's reasonable it could happen," says the other Maryland chief.

Graham says he plans to reach out to MPD on Monday to try and get a full explanation and resolve this dispute before Russell contemplates hiring an attorney or filing a formal complaint. Graham also asked WTOP to arrange a call between him and Russell to discuss the situation.

"On Monday, I will be calling the chiefs and asking them what is going on here. I will do that. I would glad to get back to you with the results," he says.

WTOP plans to follow up with Graham and Russell to see the results and discuss what the next steps will be. She can appeal all six tickets to the Department of Motor Vehicles.

"I love living in D.C. I own and operate a small business in D.C. But it's disgusting that for that scale of an incident I would be given these many tickets," says Russell.

If you think you're the victim of a bogus speed camera, red-light camera or parking ticket in D.C., Maryland or Virginia, WTOP may be able to help you cut the red tape. Email us your case - along with documentation - to ticketbuster@wtop.com.

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