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Ticketbuster: Third time's the charm on erroneous D.C. parking ticket

Wednesday - 2/12/2014, 6:10am  ET

WASHINGTON - A federal employee who received a bad ticket late last year says his case highlights a problem with ticket writers and hearing examiners in the District of Columbia, who he believes work together to annoy drivers.

Stephen Combs works at the Department of Veterans Affairs, at 425 I Street in Northwest. He received a ticket outside his office on Nov. 6, 2013, at 1:16 p.m. for violating an official sign. Department of Public Works (DPW) ticket writer Marlon B. Banks alleged that Combs violated a sign that reads "No Parking: Street Cleaning, Wednesday 12:30pm-2:30pm." But the sign also says that street sweeping restrictions only apply from March 1 to Oct. 31.

The photo of the sign that Combs allegedly violated that came with Combs' original ticket. It reads that ticketing for street cleaning ends Oct. 31. The ticket was issued Nov. 6.

A photo taken in the same spot and angle as the photo in the ticket. The sign clearly reads that ticketing for street cleaning ends Oct. 31. (WTOP/Ari Ashe)

DPW issued a press release on Oct. 17, 2013, on the issue:

"The DC Department of Public Works (DPW) announced today that weekly residential mechanical street cleaning will end for the season Thursday, October 31, 2013. No Parking/Street Cleaning restrictions will be lifted and motorists may park on posted, alternate-side, daytime sweeping routes without moving their cars on street-cleaning days. All other parking restrictions will remain in effect. Residential street sweeping will resume Monday, March 3, 2014."

In fact, DPW's own website says the same thing:

"DPW cleans residential and arterial streets using mechanical sweepers of various sizes. Every year, between March and October, these sweepers operate along residential streets where signs are posted restricting parking during street sweeping hours. A $45 ticket may be issued for violating these restrictions."

Since the ticket was written in November, Combs thought he would have no problem getting the ticket dismissed.

"I figured it was clear-cut -- maybe the [ticket writer] was in a rush and made a mistake. I was confident about my case; I didn't think anything else about it," he says.

"The next morning, the very first thing I did was take a picture of the sign, file the appeal, attach the picture, say, 'Hey this is incorrect. I got it Nov. 6, but the closures end on Oct. 31.'"

DMV adjudicates all traffic tickets in D.C. On Jan. 9, Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) Hearing Examiner Stephen Lawson ruled against Combs.

"Respondent failed to submit appropriate evidence to support any of the allowable defenses. The government has established the violation by preponderance of the evidence. Therefore, the resident is hereby found liable," he writes.

Combs received the decision four days later in the mail. He filed an appeal and contacted WTOP Ticketbuster.

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WTOP asked DMV about the ruling.

"The picture that Mr. Combs provided does not contain any identifying information. There are no location street signs or buildings. Additionally, if you look at the picture that Mr. Combs provided and compare it to the sign DPW provides in TixPics, then you will see that they are two different signs. This is an opportunity to inform your listeners that when they provide pictures, location street signs need to be in the picture," wrote DMV spokeswoman Vanessa Newton.

WTOP pointed out to her that all street sweeping signs on arterial roads in D.C. say March 1 - Oct. 31, providing a link to the DPW guidelines posted online. Major roads such Pennsylvania Avenue get street cleaning year-round, but that always occurs during the overnight, not in the afternoon.

WTOP also sent DMV photographs that we took at the same spot where the DPW photographs were taken. Nonetheless, the DMV refused to reopen the case and dismiss the ticket. The DMV also did not provide an explanation for why the hearing examiner did not know the city's own regulations.

"You are aware that DC DMV was informed about the signage. However, since Mr. Combs has already filed an appeal, DC DMV has to follow its procedures, which is to have the Traffic Adjudication Appeals Board review his appeal," wrote Newton, adding that a decision could take up to two years.

Combs admits he was frustrated when he heard an appeal could take two years. He thinks he is just one of many drivers targeted on the streets.

"I think the overall theory of the city is that you don't need to drive. Clearly, this is about the money, and it's about getting Maryland and Virginia folks out of their cars. People will ask: Why should I go in Washington, D.C., and park? Well, there are days I wonder that myself," he says.

DMV red tape on another error

Not only did the DPW's Banks misread the parking sign, but he also listed the wrong location on the ticket. Banks alleged the infraction occurred at 400 I Street Northeast, not Northwest. WTOP discovered the error when we worked with DDOT, which is responsible for all signs in the District.

"Staff checked the 400 block of I Street NE to see if street cleaning signs were on site. After checking this location, they reported back that no street cleaning signs are posted at this location. Please check to make sure we were submitted the correct location (400 block of I Street NE). There were never street sweeping signs posted at this location," wrote DDOT's James G. Burney.

We also turned that email over to DMV and DPW, since an inaccurate location on the ticket could also result in an automatic dismissal under D.C. Official Code Section 50-2303.05 (a) (2). But DMV again refused to re-open the case.

"To my knowledge, DC DMV has not received any information from DDOT stating that the sign was not up when the ticket was issued," writes Newton.

We provided geotagged photographs at the site of the ticket, but DMV still insisted WTOP must contact DPW, which wrote the ticket. (Geotagging refers to a process of taking photos with metadata embedded in the file, including the exact latitude and longitude.)

An 11th-hour resolution

After DMV refused to reopen the case, Newton told us that DPW is the only agency that could speed up the process. Unless they voided the ticket, Combs would have to wait up two years.

So WTOP approached DPW, sending them our photographs and a copy of their own guidelines. After being told our article would be published on Wednesday, DPW agreed to void the ticket on Tuesday afternoon.

"We agree that the ticket was issued in error. We are asking DMV to void the ticket and we are initiating the process to issue the refund and apologize for the concern caused Mr. Combs. There is a process in place to catch erroneous tickets. But obviously this one was missed and we're sorry about that," says DPW spokeswoman Linda Grant.

"We have an ongoing training process because we do know that people make mistakes. We will not only speak with the employee in this case, but we will also make it clear to all the parking officers that they need to as careful, as we advise motorists to be when parking."

Drivers usually get a refund on an erroneously issued ticket within six to eight weeks. But WTOP has agreed to follow up with Combs to ensure he gets his refund, after an ABC7/WTOP joint investigation found another driver waited more than six months for her refund.

"I'm so grateful for the WTOP Ticketbuster program. I got more ground covered in one week interacting with you than I did in the three months before that," Combs says.

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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