Metro and I do not get along. Even when it isn’t on fire, which is rare, it manages to burn me up. A few weeks ago, I was on my way home from a party. I looked great, was a little tipsy, and was upset because I had dropped my phone while walking to the Metro. My phone had some hairline fractures in the screen. Little did I know that these fractures would be low on my list of worries by the end of the night. My boyfriend and I got to the terminal at Virginia Square, headed west, to Vienna. I pressed my wallet to the gate sensor with my SmartTrip card inside, and the gate opened.
Metro has been under some heavy construction for months now. Delays were to be expected, but this night, the trains were single-tracking in a way I had never seen before. Only one side of the platform was open, and trains going both east and west were stopping at the same side. My boyfriend said we should wait to figure things out, but I was headstrong and decided that we would be hopping on the first train that arrived. It took us east, the wrong direction.
Ignoring his gentle but firm “I told you so,” I suggested that we get off at the next stop, now half a mile further east than where we began, and split an Uber home. I was tired and cranky about being wrong.
We got off the train at Clarendon and came to the exit gate. I allowed him to exit before me and followed close behind, pressing my wallet against the sensor to pay my $2.15 for travelling the distance from one station to the next during peak weekend hours.
“Hey! Excuse me!” I heard a yell and turned to see a Metro cop in full uniform walking quickly toward me.
“Is there a problem?” I asked him.
“Yes, there is a problem,” he responded, “Step over here, please.”
I followed him, like an idiot.
“How much have you had to drink tonight, ma’am?” the officer asked, “a lot?”
Rude, I thought, and did not answer him.
This young Metro cop held me for half an hour. Not once did it occur to me to ask if I was being detained. I was very sweet to him, hoping that he would let me go. He asked for my driver’s license, which I politely supplied. I shouldn’t have.
He asked where my permanent residence is. When I tried to explain that I am a graduate student who lives in Vienna, he demanded that I explain my Pennsylvania driver’s license. When I again explained that I am a graduate student who lives in Vienna, he demanded that I explain why I don’t have a Virginia license. When I explained that I do not have a car in Virginia, he demanded that I explain why I was taking the metro. I should have noticed that he was messing with me, but I was too freaked out to do anything but comply. I cried when he wrote me a ticket for fare evasion, telling him over and over again that there was ten dollars on my SmartTrip card, that I had just loaded ten dollars onto it before getting on the Metro to come to this party that I was now wishing I had skipped…I said it over and over again, ten dollars, ten dollars.
He did not check my card at the terminal. He did not look to see if I was telling the truth. He wrote me a summons on a yellow piece of paper, commenting again on how I had lied about my residency. I took the summons from him and with one final attempt at a small victory asked, “will I see you there? In court?”
“You will see me there,” he said, brusquely.
Finally, I left. My boyfriend had been waiting for me on the other side of the gate. He was angry. I was angry. It was now 1:30 in the morning, and I was so upset that I do not remember the Uber ride home.
When I answered my court summons, I was very nervous. The cop was there, with a freshly shaved head. After ruling on a man with three DUIs and a very pregnant girlfriend, and another man who was charged with possessing a bunch of illegal knives, the judge called us forward.
“Do you plead guilty, not guilty, or guilty with explanation?”
I paused. I paused for a long time. I hadn’t thought about it. I didn’t even know that “guilty with explanation” was an option! After an almost incriminatingly long silence, I said “not guilty.”
We raised our right hands and swore to tell the truth.
The officer told the judge that I had been “piggybacking” – walking too close to the “patron” in front of me – and that when he checked my Metro card, it had a negative balance. My nervousness disappeared, replaced by a flood of anger. Ten dollars, I remembered myself pleading, I have ten dollars, just check! He was lying.
The judge turned to me, and I told her my side of the story. That the “patron” I was walking so close behind was my boyfriend (which should not matter – I can walk close behind whomever I want – this is America!), that my SmarTrip card was in my wallet, which I pressed against the gate. That I absolutely did not mean to show up here today, in court, on the taxpayer’s dime, over $2.15.
The judge listened to my statement and asked the officer if he had seen me press my wallet to the sensor. He paused, and then said, “Your Honor, from the angle I was at, she was so close behind the other patron…her boyfriend, I guess…that I could not see.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. He admitted to harassing me in the damp Metro station for half an hour simply because I had walked through the gate too quickly behind my boyfriend. This was madness. Who gave this man a badge? Not only had he lied about my fare balance, he just cemented my innocence with admission of his own idiocy!
The judge told me she would give me the benefit of the doubt. I was free to go without any fines.
The amount of time the state spent on The Mysterious Case of the Girl Who Walked Close to Her Boyfriend is staggering to me. For $2.15, throngs of patrons came and went (and could have piggybacked in droves) while the cop bullied me into explaining why I have a PA license.
For $2.15, the officer had to write up a report back at the station, schedule a court date, and show up to court. For $2.15, a judge had to dedicate half an hour of her time to deal with my case, not to mention the security guards present in the courtroom. The list goes on, but it is clear that this entire thing was a waste of everyone’s time, money, and dignity.
In his attempt to reclaim the $2.15 I had allegedly stolen, the officer cost the taxpayer lots of money. The wage advertised for a member of the Metro Transit Police is between $48,395 and $86,856. Assuming that the officer is only making the minimum, then half an hour of his time is worth $11.63 (assuming a 40-hour work week) – more than 5x what I was being accused of stealing. This is not to mention the wages of everyone else involved, or that which was lost not in wages but in happiness.
From January to March of 2016, Metro had either caught fire or malfunctioned in such a way that a station or car was flooded with smoke seventy-three times. Thank god it is using its manpower to deter girls from walking too close to their boyfriends. The DC Metro stands tall as a perfect example of why government should not run things monopolistically. Without competition, Metro can do whatever it wants. Because it is funded by taxpayer dollars, a decline in ridership is not met with the same decline in revenue a private company would experience. Metro has the time, energy, and funding to keep loyal pawns like my officer on the scene, in case someone walks too close to her boyfriend.
A movie theater will not issue a court summons for anyone found sneaking into a second movie. Even if they can prove that you are sneaking around, all they will do is throw you out. Why? Because it is not worth the theater’s time to take you to court, and because, even if you are sneaking around, they value your business. Metro clearly does not value our business, and has no problem throwing innocent civilians’ money around to prove it! It is easier for Metro to fund the illusion of effectiveness by propping uniformed transit cops around its stations than it is for it to repair its tracks, replace its decrepit trains, or try really, really hard not to catch on fire.