Beating the Jaywalking Rap

While gunshots ring out and drug deals are executed just blocks away, DC's police officers spend entire days nabbing pedestrians who cross streets a little too soon or a little too late.
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Washington, D.C., one of the country's most violent and unsafe cities, has recently decided to crack down on... jaywalking. While gunshots ring out and drug deals are executed just blocks away, police officers spend entire days nabbing pedestrians who cross streets a little too soon or a little too late. Not only that, but the cops enforcing the anti-jaywalking ordinance tend to be overenthusiastic in their efforts, ticketing pedestrians who pose no conceivable danger to their own or others' safety. And not only that, but it is doubtful whether the ordinance itself, as a legal matter, even authorizes the issuance of most of the tickets that cite it.

I learned first-hand about Washington's jaywalking crackdown a few months ago, when I was ticketed at the intersection of P and 14th Streets, Northwest. Instead of looking at the pedestrian signal directly in front of me, I had watched the traffic light perpendicular to the direction in which I was walking. When the light turned red, thus halting all vehicular traffic, I began crossing the street. But according to the ever-vigilant officer who ticketed me, there was a one-second gap between the light turning red and the pedestrian signal permitting people to walk. Because I started to cross the street a moment too soon -- and even though traffic had already stopped to allow pedestrians to pass -- I was a jaywalker.

Luckily for me, I decided to protest my ticket. In my complaint, I argued that even if I had jaywalked, I had done so by a second or two at most -- not long enough for the officer to be confident in the ticket he was issuing, and certainly not long enough to create any public safety risk. A newly minted lawyer, I also decided to look up D.C.'s anti-jaywalking ordinance. I found, to my surprise, that the ordinance may not actually cover much of the jaywalking that takes place in Washington. According to D.C. Code Mun. Regs. § 18.2302.3, "[n]o pedestrian shall start to cross the roadway in the direction of a 'DON'T WALK' or 'WAIT' signal." Subsection 18.2302.1 similarly states that "[w]henever special pedestrian control signals exhibiting the words 'WALKS,' 'DON'T WALK,' or 'WAIT' are in place, such signals shall indicate and apply to pedestrians."

The problem with these provisions is that many D.C. pedestrian signals -- including the one at P and 14th Streets -- do not actually display the words "WALKS," "DON'T WALK," or "WAIT." Instead, the signals typically display a white stick figure in mid-stride, a blinking red hand, or a steady red hand. Everyone knows what these graphical representations mean, but the ordinance is so poorly drafted that it does not clearly extend to pedestrian signals that employ symbols rather than words. As I wrote in my complaint, "It is indisputable that I did not, as the regulation requires, 'start to cross the roadway in the direction of a "DON'T WALK" or "WAIT" signal.'"

Two weeks ago, I found out that my jaywalking ticket had been voided. "The examiner determined that the ticket should be dismissed for one of the following reasons: there was an error on the ticket, the government was unable to establish the violation, or the evidence submitted was sufficient to prove a defense to the violation." Unfortunately, it is impossible to tell whether I prevailed on the basis of my factual argument (regarding the interval between traffic lights turning red and pedestrian signals permitting people to walk) or my legal claim about the ordinance's faulty language -- or whether the ticketing officer just didn't want to deal with me anymore. Still, it seems to me there are some useful lessons to be drawn from my little story. First, if the government does something you think is wrong, plead your case! Sometimes the bureaucracy does take notice and respond to reason. Second, check the rules! It took me about a minute on Google to find D.C.'s anti-jaywalking ordinance, and it required no special lawyerly skills to notice its poor drafting.

Finally -- and this is the crux of this column -- we should all do what we can to show our opposition to misguided government policies. I think Washington's crackdown on jaywalking is a terrible idea, arbitrarily imposing fines on the pedestrians who happen to get caught, producing little or no benefit in public safety, and diverting scarce police resources from the battle against serious crime. Pedestrians stopped for jaywalking, of course, have little choice at the time but to smile and take their ticket. But if they make enough noise afterwards -- by arguing they did not jaywalk, criticizing the city's inordinate focus on minor offenses, and citing the flawed ordinance -- they may just convince Washington to adopt a more rational policing strategy. A jaywalking crackdown that was undemocratically imposed may thus democratically be lifted.

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