Fine Words

This article appeared in the Washington Post on April 15, 2001.
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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.