Posted on January 22, 2019

D.C. Council Overrides Bowser Veto, Votes to Decriminalize Metro Fare Evasion

Faiz Siddiqui, Washington Post, January 22, 2019

The D.C. Council voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to override Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s veto of its legislation decriminalizing fare evasion on Metro. The 11-2 vote means the legislation now heads to Congress for final review.

A two-thirds majority of council members was required to overrule Bowser (D), who issued a rare veto last week of the bill that reduces the penalty for fare evasion to a $50 civil infraction. Previously, the offense was a misdemeanor that carried a potential penalty of jail time and a fine up to $300. Bowser expressed concerned about the impact the legislation could have on Metro’s bottom line, arguing it could exacerbate the agency’s revenue problems and create potential safety issues. Metro, its largest workers’ union, Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) and Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who serves as Metro board chairman, all opposed the bill.

But the council overruled the mayor’s objections and rejected her argument that lessening the penalties for fare evasion would encourage potential “lawlessness,” and make Metro less safe.


Metro had argued that it loses at least $25 million a year from passengers who fail to pay their bus fare, and combined with Metrorail fare evasion the total lost probably exceeds $50 million annually, though there is no exact figure. {snip}

“We should not encourage lawlessness on Metro, which could exacerbate public safety concerns on our Metro and in our city,” Bowser wrote in a letter outlining her veto last week.

But activists, council members and criminal justice advocates rejected that line of thinking, likening it to “broken windows” policing, referring to the theory that policing minor offenses could prevent instances of more serious crime — which instead resulted in a disproportionately criminalized population without reducing the crime rate overall.


Proponents of the bill argued fare evasion enforcement was a problem of disproportionate policing and the penalties saddled offenders with potential lifelong consequences for neglecting to pay a $2 fare.

They pointed to a Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs report that concluded fare evasion enforcement was most prominent at stations that served a high proportion of black riders, suggesting targeted policing was at play. The statistic that punctuated the report: between January 2016 and February 2018, Metro Transit Police stopped 30,000 people for suspected fare evasion. Among those, 91 percent of fare evasion citations and summons were issued to African Americans.

The American Civil Liberties Union applauded the Council’s decision in a statement Tuesday.

“With this vote, the Council has signaled that it will no longer tolerate the fundamental injustice of the current law, which punishes fare evasion with risk of arrest and jail for as little as a $2 fare,” said Nassim Moshiree, policy director for the ACLU of the District of Columbia. “We are especially grateful the Council has seen through the inflammatory rhetoric and fearmongering by Mayor Bowser and [Metro], and has chosen fairness and equity for all D.C. residents.”


Council Member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5) addressed those employees, some of whom were in attendance, directly.

“While the issue of assaults and other things that you all experience is incredibly serious, I also think the issue of the lifelong collateral consequences associated with criminalizing fare evasion is extremely serious,” he said. “I support consequences for those who evade fares; I don’t support criminal consequences.”