DMV forces DC resident to pay 30-year-old ticket

Lifelong D.C. resident Sherry Freeman says she always pays her tickets. So she was shocked when she went to the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to renew her registration and was told she had an unpaid ticket.

The clerk handed her a piece of paper showing the ticket was from Feb. 6, 1985.

"I looked at the clerk and said, 'That's 30 years. Are you serious?' How will I know that this is really my ticket or if hasn't been paid or not?'" recalled Sherry. The clerk told her she had to pay the $100 ticket or she could not re-register her car.

Traffic tickets are big business in D.C. You can get tickets for parking, red lights, speeding and moving violations. The total brings almost $200 million into the city's coffers.

If you think you are innocent of the offense, you can adjudicate the ticket. But what if they handed you a ticket form 30 years ago? Can you remember what you were doing in 1985?

Ronald Reagan said in his second inaugural address that "these were the golden years." The Soviet Union was our biggest threat. "The Cosby Show" was the top-rated TV show.

"Amadeus" won the Oscar for best picture. But people remember the show because Sally Field yelled out "you like me" in her speech.

The biggest blockbuster of the year was "Back to the Future" starring Michael J. Fox. The movie predicted that cars would fly in 2015.

Well, we are still driving our cars on streets, which mean we still get tickets. But we usually know about them.

So, Sherry really went "back to the future" at the DMV.

"I left dumbfounded by the whole thing," she told me. After she left the DMV, Sherry said she thought about all the things that have happened in the last 30 years. "I've had a second child during that 30-year period. I've had three grandchildren. I've started my federal government career. I've probably gone through six boyfriends or something."

Sherry does not remember getting the ticket. All Sherry knows is it was a moving violation for "disobeying a traffic device." The DMV said it doesn't keep copies of tickets from the 80s and 90s.

She had no choice. She paid the ticket and then paid to re-register her car for the year.

D.C. City Councilmember Mary Cheh oversees parking issues as chair of the Transportation Committee. She said of Sherry's experience with the DMV: "They should have told her something more in detail about what it was to give her an opportunity to think, hmm, was that really my car?"

Cheh explained that a few years ago, the city created the Central Collections Unit under the Chief Financial Officer to go back and collect money that people have owed the city for years. Cheh said she had never heard of the collections unit going back as far as 30 years.

But why is Sherry just hearing about this ticket now?

D.C. has a so-called "clean hands law," which means you can't re-register your car without paying your tickets.

"I've renewed my registration on a car every year. And I've never been told I have an outstanding ticket from 1985," asserted Sherry.

The DMV said Sherry's ticket never surfaced before now because the tickets and registration records are not fully connected. The city council is not happy to hear that.

"We need to check on that because that was supposed to be the hook to get people who owed tickets to pay them," said Cheh in an interview.

After the interview, Cheh's staff checked on what the DMV told me about not fully connected databases on tickets and registrations. They found that the DMV is not doing what the City Council thought was happening -- a seamless integration of the two systems.

Cheh is going to ask the DMV about it at an oversight hearing on March 4.

The bigger picture is fairness.

There's no statute of limitation for tickets because that might encourage people to cheat. But Sherry says she has gotten very few tickets in her lifetime, and she always paid them on time.

The DMV said that Sherry took this 1985 ticket to traffic court three years later –- in 1988 -– and lost the case. She has no memory of any of this.

"That's the sad thing about it. I don't know if ticket is really mine. I don't know if the ticket has already been paid," said Sherry.

In fact, the D.C. inspector general released a big report in September on parking and traffic tickets. The report said the public is frustrated because the system seems to be that you are "guilty unless you can prove yourself innocent." That's exactly what Sherry said to me.

"The burden is always on the citizen… And it's not on DC government," she said.

Sherry's got a point. Until our cars can fly -- and there are no more tickets -- we're all stuck in the past.

If the DMV has told you that you have an unpaid ticket from long ago that you don't remember, let me know. Call us at 202-895-3000 or email