Can the District of Columbia issue a citation for a vehicle that has an expired inspection sticker from Virginia?

August 3rd, 2012

After my resounding victory as an appellate litigator in Houston online traffic court, a friend (who called that post a “bait and switch”–totally accurate) mentioned that he had just paid a citation to the District of Columbia.

So here was the situation.

His car is registered in Virginia, but his inspection sticker had expired (one day ago!). A parking attendant in the District of Columbia issued him a citation for having an expired inspection sticker. Here is the relevant provision of the D.C. parking code:

Fail to display current [inspection] sticker [§ 601.1, 602, 607] – $ 50.00

The key cross reference is 602.7:

602.7 A vehicle owned by a non-resident and currently registered in another jurisdiction shall display the proper inspection sticker issued for the vehicle in accordance with the requirements of the issuing jurisdiction.

In effect, the D.C. Parking Code authorizes the District to issue a citation to a vehicle owned by a non-resident  if the vehicle is not “in accordance with the requirements of the issuing jurisdiction.”

Let’s cross the Potomac, and check the Virginia code for the law regarding inspection stickers (I passed the Virginia bar almost three years ago, and this is the first time I have actually searched the Virginia code).

Code § 46.2-1157 provides the rules for inspections in Virginia:

The owner or operator of any motor vehicle, trailer, or semitrailer registered in Virginia and operated or parked on a highway within the Commonwealth shall submit his vehicle to an inspection of its mechanism and equipment by an official inspection station, designated for that purpose, in accordance with § 46.2-1158. No owner or operator shall fail to submit a motor vehicle, trailer, or semitrailer operated or parked on the highways in the Commonwealth to such inspection or fail or refuse to correct or have corrected in accordance with the requirements of this title any mechanical defects found by such inspection to exist.

So that seems pretty clear cut. But, like most laws, simply not having a sticker present in a car is not always enough to constitute a violation.

For example, 19VAC30-70-50 Section O spells out lengthy procedures of what happens if a sticker is lost or stolen–to summarize, you aren’t in violation of the law if a safety trooper certifies this is the case. I can imagine there are a host of circumstances where a car in Virginia is lacking an inspection sticker, but is still (to put it in the lexicon of D.C.’s statute), “in accordance with the requirements of the issuing jurisdiction.”

The problem arises, I think, with the D.C. parking attendant’s determination of what constitutes a violation of another state’s (Virginia’s) laws.

Say, for example, that a Virginia parking attendant gives an inspection citation to a vehicle registered in Virginia that does not have sticker (because the sticker was lost or stolen). That person could then appeal through the proper channels in Virginia court. Even if the sticker was lacking, but an exception to the code applied, the Virginia courts should grant relief.

But, what happens in D.C.? If someone who had their sticker stolen is cited for it, they would have to appeal through D.C. Court. Are D.C. traffic courts even competent to adjudicate interpretations of the Virginia court? Do they even have jurisdiction? Could the Virginia resident seek a declaratory judgment in Virginia courts that they were not in violation of the law? Is that even cognizable in Virginia courts? Can you even raise constitutional due process issues in this state traffic court? The Supreme Court addressed an ancillary issue this past term, and held that constitutional issues could be raised in federal administrative courts (drawing a blank on which case that was).

There is potentially a due process violation here, where D.C. is fining someone for what it perceives to be a violation of another state’s law, without an actual opportunity to be heard on whether Virginia’s laws were in fact violated.

To answer the question I posed in the title, I don’t see anything in the Virginia code about exceptions for expired statutes, so I think my friend (as usual) is out of luck. Though, perhaps some other state allows a grace period or amnesty period–if you get the car inspected X days after the expiration date, it nunc pro tuncs it, and it is okay. Really, can anyone expect a D.C. parking attendant to be familiar with all the intricacies and vagaries of 50 other traffic codes?

But, perhaps, a facial constitutional challenge could lay? To federal court we go!

And you can feel free to ignore the entirety of this blog post, as you should.