Can you be fined for expressing a political opinion in the District? Definitely. It happened to me.
Last June I was driving along U Street NW about 5:15 p.m. when a motorcycle policeman pulled me over. I asked him what the problem was, and he said I was driving without a seat belt.
Now, I don’t like laws intended to protect me from the consequences of my decisions. I think adults should make their own decisions about what to read, what to eat, what to smoke and whether to wear a seat belt. Further, research shows that drivers who feel safer often drive more recklessly, so when seat belts are mandated, some drivers become a greater danger to themselves and others.
But I didn’t mention any of this to the officer because I didn’t think it would do me any good in the circumstances.
After going through the standard checks, the officer asked me to sign what I thought was a ticket, although I was to find out a few minutes later that it really was only a warning. As I signed, he said, “It’s $ 50 and two points.” With that, I assumed that our interaction was over, and I said, “Well, I feel much safer now. There are 300 murders a year in the District, but at least you got me.”
The officer told me to hand back the ticket, and he returned to his motorcycle, where I could see him writing some more. Then, he returned with a different ticket for me to sign.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“It’s a $50 ticket, not a warning,” he said. “Sometimes it’s better to keep your mouth shut.”
“So I’m getting a ticket for what I said?” I asked.
“Yes,” he answered and walked away.
What I had said was, of course, provocative, but I never raised my voice. Yet because I said something the officer didn’t like, he changed a warning into a ticket.
I appealed the ticket and was given a hearing date eight months later. At that hearing the officer and I related the facts in similar terms. The officer said that he had discretion about issuing a ticket or a warning and that he changed his decision after I made my comment. The hearing officer in the D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles said that I had violated the law, that the police officer had acted within his discretion and that I was required to pay the $ 50 fine.
I understand that the D.C. Council requires drivers to wear seat belts and has authorized a fine for violation of that requirement. It seems odd to stop someone for this infraction when that person is violating no other law, but I accept that the police officer had the legal authority to do so. However, the officer made it clear that I was being fined not for violating the seat‐belt law but for expressing an opinion about the law and the enforcement decisions of the D.C. police.
It is illegal and unconstitutional for any government to penalize a citizen for the expression of a political opinion. Indeed, this is a classic case of the arbitrary use of government power in such a way as to have a “chilling effect” on political expression.
Does anyone doubt that if I had said, “Thank you, officer, for doing such a professional job in a difficult occupation,” I would have gotten off with a warning? Indeed, the officer himself confirmed that I was being penalized for the content of my remarks — “Sometimes it’s better to keep your mouth shut.”
That’s not a healthy attitude for a government official in a constitutional democracy. And it’s even more disturbing that an administrative officer would uphold the police officer’s action.
Fined for a political opinion? The D.C. Council should tell the police department that the First Amendment applies in the District.