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 ยง 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.

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