Legal Research Blog


Fastcase of the Week: DC Metro’s Zero Tolerance French Fry Policy

As some of you know, I moved to DC recently to join the Fastcase team. Having lived in New York for a while, I don’t look twice when I see someone eating on the train. When I first moved here I may or may not even have even eaten a Chop’t salad on a hypothetically empty train ride to Maryland late one busy Friday afternoon.

I was recently riding the train to work and noticed a sign informing me that playing music out loud and eating or drinking on the train were both illegal. And then today I noticed the above-pictured sign. I assume this must be part of some awareness campaign, or perhaps these PSAs are always around and I’m just exceptionally unperceptive. Either way, I thought to myself, “Surely this is an unenforceable law.” And further, “Surely too, this is an offense punishable by a minor fine.” Since I’m a huge nerd, and I happen to work for a legal research company, I decided to look into both of these assumptions.

DC Code § 35-251 (Fastcase 2013) legislates:

It is unlawful for any person either while aboard a public passenger vehicle . . . or while within a rail transit station owned and/or operated by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority which is located within the corporate limits of the District of Columbia to . . . (2) Consume food or drink . . . .

Helpfully, the Fastcase algorithm that automatically aggregates and annotates statutes with subsequently-citing cases answered my second question for me. Hedgepeth v. Washington Metro. Area Transit Auth., 386 F.3d 1148 (D.C. Cir., 2004), a case that made it all the way to the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, told the story of a twelve year old middle-school student who purchased a small bag of french fries on her way home from school, ate a single french fry while waiting for her friend to purchase a metro card, and was immediately detained, handcuffed, and escorted (sans shoelaces, which were clearly taken from her as she cried in fright and/or embarrassment) to a juvenile detention facility where she was fingerprinted and processed.

The case is sort of a perfect storm of weird facts: the Metropolitan Police Department was in the middle of a zero-tolerance for quality of life offenses week, and Hedgepeth was under sixteen. While the above statute does not allow for the arrest of an adult for a first offense violation, the oddity arises because D.C. law labels such a violation a “delinquent act” requiring arrest and not explicitly allowing for citation.

The case was a Section 1983 claim that was ultimately dismissed in both the district and circuit courts. The upshot in the Court’s own words though was that “the policies were changed after those responsible endured the sort of publicity reserved for adults who make young girls cry.” Id. at 1150. After negative publicity from this case, the WMATA adopted a new policy allowing citations for violating this statute. More reasonable still, they implemented a written warning policy allowing for a letter to be sent to the child’s school and guardians in lieu of citation or arrest.

So yeah, I was apparently wrong on both counts, but that’s why we research, no?

Have you ever defended a ridiculous case based on seemingly unenforceable or weird laws? We’d love to hear about it.

Who knew ?: the single-letter wildcard operator

You already know that the asterisk (*) acts as a multi-letter wildcard operator, meaning it will look for multiple substitute letters.  You can use it to expand a root “word” such as “testa.” If you search for testa*, your results may include words like testamentary, testator, testable, etc.

If you need just need to substitute one letter, use the question mark (?) as a single-letter wildcard operator.

Not sure whether the game Pokémon is spelled with an “o” or an “a”? Try Pokem?n.  You may be surprised at the variations that come up!

The three Cs: click, copy, and cite

Need to copy and paste a portion of a case into a word processing document? Use the Copy Document Text feature!

While in the full case view, select the text you want to copy with your mouse. (Hint: Place your mouse at the beginning of the text you want to copy, then click and hold the mouse button. Drag your mouse to the end of the selection and then release the button. The selected text will be highlighted in blue.) A pop-up box will give you the choice of copying the text or copying the text with the case citation.

Open the brief or pleading that you are working on in the appropriate word processing program (e.g., MS Word or Word Perfect). Then use your program’s paste function to paste the text into your document. (Hint: If you are using MS Word, you can paste using the shortcut CTRL+V.)

If you selected Copy With Citation, it will paste the text with the citation at the end.

That’s it!

Stay on top of your research with “Add Alert”

To receive new cases based on a previous search you’ve run, use the “Add Alert” button at the top of the results list.  Here, we’ve run a search for “sentencing guidelines” in the Fourth Circuit and we’ve decided to add this search to our alerts so we get notified of new cases in the Fourth Circuit that also include the search term “sentencing guidelines.”

To do this, we’ll simply click the “Add Alert” button once we get to the results screen.

A small verification window will pop up to let us know the alert has been added.

Alerts can be managed by going to Options, then Manage Alerts.

Labor Day closure

Fastcase customer service will be closed Monday, September 2, in observance of Labor Day.  We will reopen at 8 a.m. Eastern on Tuesday, September 3.