Appeal a Ticket, Pay a Fine

D.C. man gets added fine after long fight over trash ticket

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    NEWSLETTERS

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    Think twice before tossing your coconuts in here, please and thank you.

    If most of us received a ticket from the D.C. Department of Public Works for a violation we did not commit, we would probably rail a bit and maybe shoot off an angry e-mail, but, after deciding that you can’t fight the Wilson Building, we’d grumble and write a check.

    Not John Hanrahan of Dupont Circle.

    When he got a $75 ticket for “improperly storing solid waste” -- because, he says, a DPW worker found three pieces of junk mail addressed to him under a neighbor’s overturned trash can -- Hanrahan appealed.

    The result: a $225 fine.

    And it only took two years.

    Hanrahan received the notice of violation by certified mail on March 20, 2008. A week later, he appealed in person with the Office of Administrative Hearings, and on April 9, he received notice that a hearing would be held.

    After that, nothing for nearly two months. On the last day of May 2008, Hanrahan called the hearings office again to ask about the date. He said he was told the hearing had taken place on May 3.

    A clerk told Hanrahan that he had been sent a letter. Hanrahan said he hadn’t received it, and asked if it had been sent certified mail like the original ticket. No, for some reason the notice of an official hearing was sent by regular mail. (“Every piece of important mail I have ever been expecting at my current address for the last 37 years, courtesy of the U.S. Postal Service, has always arrived at my house,” Hanrahan says.)

    Hanrahan told the clerk that he had spent hours taking pictures and compiling a defense for the hearing, so it made no sense that he would not appear if he had known about it. The clerk suggested he write a letter to the administrative judge.

    He did. For months, he received no response, and repeated calls to the hearings office got him nowhere.

    In November 2009, more than a year and a half after the original alleged violation, he called and asked if he could write to the judge again. No, he was told -- that would be a prohibited ex parte communication. (“Why my May 30, 2008, letter to the judge was not ex parte and just as prohibited," he says, "I don’t know.”)

    On April 30, 2010, without any further communication from the Office of Administrative Hearings in the interim, Hanrahan received a five-page decision from the administrative judge. It determined he was guilty, that he had not shown up for the hearing, and -- incredibly -- that he had not explained why he had not appeared.

    The penalty: the original $75, plus $150 for skipping the hearing.

    “Furious and amused at the same time, I wrote out my $225 check and mailed it on May 11 via certified mail,” Hanrahan said. “According to the return card I received, my letter was signed for in the Office of Administrative Hearings on May 14.”

    A month passed, then another. The check remained uncashed. Finally, the check was reported cashed Aug. 3.

    “The real annoyance here is not that I was subsequently found guilty of the trash offense, but rather that I was denied my ‘day in court,’ and that this routine case took two years-plus to resolve,” he said. “And then, despite D.C.’s troubled financial situation, they took 81 days to cash my check.”

    Hanrahan’s advice to “anyone receiving a similar ticket for a minor infraction: Swear a lot, cut your losses and pay it even if you believe yourself to be innocent.”

    Yep, you can’t fight the Wilson Building.