Full disclosure: The author of this story knows that he was in the wrong here. The events detailed below are simply written in order to discourage readers from experiencing the same fate and to alert them of a law that exists in very few places on the planet—DC being one of them.
I was recently pulled over in DC while going 0 in a 25. The officer, who was waiting behind me at a red light, said he was conducting a routine sweep of vehicles’ registrations. Mine had expired the previous week. After the officer wrote me a warning citation, I thanked him, promised to renew it online the next day, and was on my way.
I was extremely lucky.
Last year, the story of a 41-year-old mother and WTOP contributor made headlines all over the city when she was arrested for driving with expired Maryland tags in the District—prompting a DCPD representative and Council member Phil Mendelson to admit that the arrest was excessive, while AAA spokesman John Townsend called it “over the top” and “shocking” that anyone, regardless of where they lived, could be subjected to such treatment in DC for a violation that results in a ticket carrying no points in most every other state.
Coincidentally, only two days after Nellis’s “shocking” story reverberated around the DMV, I was arrested for the exact same offense. Except my story is much worse…
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I was driving on U Street NW at 9 p.m. when I noticed a cop car flashing its lights in my rearview mirror. As I was in the middle of a busy street and didn’t want to block traffic, I turned on my blinker to signal that I was going to pull over on 13th Street, 15 yards away. The cop got on her megaphone to say “Stay where you are, turn your engine off, and put the keys where I can see them on the roof.” Odd, I thought.
When the cop approached and asked me for my license and registration, I gave her both, asking, “What seems to be the problem, ma’am?” She explained that she was doing a routine sweep of vehicles’ registrations. She took a look at my registration, and asked “Do you know that this expired ten days ago?” I did, apologized, and promised that I’d renew it online the next day (note: Nellis’s tags had been expired for three months). She told me to wait as she went back to her car.
I saw the cop check her computer, which should have revealed that I have never gotten into an accident, the only speeding ticket I’ve ever received was in 2003, and that I’ve never been convicted of a felony.
When she came back, she asked me to get out of the car and put my hands behind my back as she handcuffed me while a crowd looked on. I asked, “Ma’am are you serious?” To which the officer said, “Don’t you talk back to me!” A second officer was called in to move my car off of U Street and onto 13th Street to clear it from traffic.
I was taken to the Ward 3 Precinct on 17th and V Street where I was handcuffed to a chair as officers took everything from my pockets and my belt (a potential weapon). I was told that I would receive my belongings when my girlfriend came to post the necessary $100 needed to release me.
I asked one of the officers if lots of people get thrown in jail for having a registration that had expired ten days earlier. She said they do. Stupidly, I replied, “Hardened criminals, every one of them.” The officer then leaned in so her nose was nearly touching mine and said, “Let me tell you something: Do you think you’d be saying that if someone you loved was hit by someone with an expired registration? Do you?!” I apologized, even though her argument made zero sense.
Registrations are simply used so that a jurisdiction can track which vehicles reside within its borders. Driving with an expired registration does not mean that you’re operating a vehicle that is stolen or not yours, driving without a license or having met the necessary requirements to control a vehicle, driving under the influence of drugs, or speeding—all of which would be cause for greater alarm if they were factors in causing an accident, and not all of which are arrestable offenses in DC.
After spending three hours on the top of a metal bunk bed in a two-person cell with a guy who had been picked up for having robbed a convenience store with a knife, I asked an officer whether my girlfriend had come yet. The officer said she would check. Said officer did not check, but I later learned my girlfriend had come, was ordered to pay the $100 and was then told there was nothing she could do to get me released (after having been told to come to the precinct by the officer who arrested me in order to get me released).
At 12:30 a.m., everyone on my block was handcuffed together, elephant-walk-style, stuffed into the back of a paddywagon, and driven to what I’d later realize were the holding cells in the basement of the DC Court of Appeals at Judiciary Square. Once there, the driver told us that it could take an hour or so before our names were called for processing. He did not, however, open the back door, but kept us inside the back of the windowless van in the pitch black. In August.
Inside the paddywagon, people went around and said what they had gotten picked up for. One guy was arrested on suspicion of selling weed. Another guy (different from my cellmate) was picked up for robbing another convenience store. A third person shot a gun off that didn’t hit anyone. Not really knowing what to say, I just told everyone that I killed a pedophile.
Ninety minutes later, we each had mug shots taken and were finger printed before being given a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Officers told us it was the only thing we’d get before our court date the next morning. We were then taken into another holding cell. After three more hours, an officer came to my cell and said, “You Paul?” while looking over my rap sheet. He then added, “Shit, man.” and released me.
I was instructed to go to the front desk where I was told a man would give me a bus token so I could go back to the Third Ward Precinct and collect my belongings. It was now 4:30 a.m. I went to see said man. He said he didn’t have any bus tokens. So I walked, from D and Indiana streets at 4:45 a.m., holding up my belt-less pants with my hands, to 17th and V streets.
On the way back, I passed the intersection where the cops had parked my car. There was a ticket on it. A cop had parked it illegally and 30 minutes later, another cop had placed a $50 ticket on it. All four doors were also left unlocked.
I arrived back at the Third Ward Precinct to ask for my stuff. The officer on night duty said he could not find it. I kindly asked what the shit he was talking about, that I had just spent the night in jail, then in a paddywagon, then in another jail, then walking across the city holding up my pants, then discovering that I’d received a ticket because a cop had illegally parked my car after arresting me, and now the cop who arrested me—the same one who told my girlfriend to come to the precinct with $100 and bail me out, and then told her to leave—had lost my stuff. Is this standard protocol?
The officer told me to take a deep breath and to relax, reminding me that I was talking to a veteran of the DC police force. He then calmly reassured me that my stuff was gone.
As a courtesy, he called the officer who arrested me. She said that I had signed a waiver releasing my belongings to another individual. That never happened.
Thirteen months later, after multiple letters, an in-person visit, and several complaints, I have yet to receive an explanation from the DCPD surrounding any of the events from this night.