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This practice should end
(Published August 8, 2005)

Low-numbered D.C. vehicle tags, bestowed by the District's elected mayor and city council members upon friends and political supporters, have long been coveted by their holders. For an equally long period, they have raised the curiosity of many average D.C. residents who wonder what special privileges accompany the marking of motor vehicles belonging to individuals with powerful political friends.

The practice of mixing politics with the assignment of legally required, government-issued license plates is unique to the District among local jurisdictions, including Maryland and Virginia.

Metropolitan Police officials and the politicians themselves maintain that vehicles displaying these politically issued tags receive no special treatment.

But staff writer Angela Loiacono, while researching two recent stories in The Common Denominator, found special treatment in the fees that these low-numbered tag holders pay to register their vehicles. Unlike the average motorist, who must pay a one-time $52 application fee and an annual additional $26 charge for special vehicle tags, holders of low-numbered tags awarded by politicians pay no extra fees when they register their vehicles.

As many as 779 vehicles currently display these low-numbered tags, according to lists provided to The Common Denominator by the mayor and the 13 council members who are authorized to assign them. And judging from the assigned tag numbers, which The Common Denominator chose not to publish along with the holders' names on July 11, more than 1,200 low-numbered tags are available for politicians to assign.

That adds up to a substantial sum of user fees that politicians have exempted their friends from paying during the more than 30 years, pre-dating the District's home rule era, when this practice has occurred.

Beyond the issue of fees, longtime D.C. residents know from experience that policy and practice in the nation's capital are sometimes two different things. A tired police officer, rationalizing lax enforcement as use of discretion, might well decide to look the other way when a driver whose car bears low-numbered tags commits a minor infraction lest the officer later be accused of picking on a politician's friend.

The tags provide law enforcement officers with a convenient mechanism for engaging in a sort of "reverse profiling" sending a subtle "hands off" message.

Equally disturbing, the lists of current low tag holders show that Mayor Anthony A. Williams has awarded them to several judges including U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and D.C. Court of Appeals Chief Judge Annice Wagner, who last week retired from the city's top judicial position.

The president of Judicial Watch, a watchdog organization that focuses on the federal judiciary, has called the practice "improper on its face and probably a violation under the law, if prosecuted." Judges who have accepted the low tags from politicians it is unclear whether any have done so also may be violating the American Bar Association's Model Code of Judicial Conduct, which prohibits judges from engaging in activities that might compromise their impartiality.

Just because a practice is longstanding should not justify its continuation. There is no valid governmental purpose served by allowing politicians to award their own private cache of vehicle tag numbers. This practice invites corruption and must end.

Copyright 2005 The Common Denominator