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Long-time readers of The InTowner are likely to recall the idiotic police action back in June of 1997 when a perfectly pleasant, law-abiding Dupont East woman resident of the 1600 block of Q Street was summarily arrested by a poorly trained police officer who charged her with drinking booze in public. Her presumed crime? She was sitting on the steps of her house sipping from a glass of white wine. And because we did not know her name when we first reported the story that summer and we knew that the wine in her glass was Chardonnay, we dubbed her the “Chardonnay Lady” — and her case has forever after been known by that label.

The point of that whole episode was the fact that even though her steps protruded from the legal property line into her front yard that on L’Enfant Plan streets and avenues are technically public space, householders are not prohibited from using those front yards in the manner the police officer deemed criminal. While the law was not explicit, there was a strong legal basis for the legality of having a cocktail in the front yard, largely based on an early 20th century local DC court ruling in case involving a taxation dispute in which the use of front yards were then and are now deemed to be under the control of the householder and not “public” in the same manner as the sidewalks. Further, in that case ruling –- the only one ever to specify non-legal uses — the court listed prohibited uses, and eating and drinking were not included.

Because of that brouhaha and another similar police action at a later time, the following year the city council, on the initiative of then at-large Councilmember Carol Schwartz, enacted corrective legislation that simply created an exception to the public drinking law making it absolutely clear that householders and their guests were legally entitled to consume alcoholic beverages on and within certain areas that are technically public space but which are actually treated as private by easement.

Now, readers may wonder why we have dredged up this decade-and-half item of local history? Well, it’s all for the purpose of setting the stage for our commentary about the recent arrest of the naval officer who one evening in July left his wife and infant child at home to drive to a close-by restaurant on Wisconsin Avenue to pick up dinner. Turned out what should have been a quick errand of a few minutes became a three-hour ordeal that included arrest, transport to the 2nd Police District headquarters on Idaho Avenue, fingerprinting and a stint in jail.

His heinous crime? Expired license plates!

Turns out DC has a unique law that gives police officers the authority to actually arrest drivers if their tags are more than 30 days out of date. But, in our view, the real offense here was how the officer refused to exercise the discretion that the law gives when circumstance warrant. The officer claimed he was required by law to arrest; but long-established policy, supported in the law generally, allows officers to use their discretion when appropriate.

In this case, according to the report published in the Washington Post on October 11th, the officer was convinced that there was something truly fishy about this DC resident naval officer because his plates were issued by Florida and yet his driver’s license was issued by Maryland. It seemed not to register with the officer that it is legal for members of the armed forces to operate a vehicle in DC with out-of-state plates.

But, even more egregious in our view is that the officer insisted that the man was in violation of DC law because he had not met the presumed requirement of obtaining a DC drivers license when he moved into the District. Trouble is, that is not the law! In fact, the law specifically exempts members of the armed forces from that requirement.

Like the “Chardonnay Lady” case, this was another example of a police officer poorly trained. Years ago, we urged that the police department implement a system like the one in New York City whereby officers on the beat would be able to call a special phone number at any hour of the day or night that would be answered by a police department lawyer who would inform the officer about the law itself. It is simply unacceptable to have police on the streets who are so untrained about what is legal and what is not and who don’t even know the that the law does permit the exercise of discretion when appropriate.

We are, of course, pleased to learn as we were preparing this commentary, that the mayor and the chief of police recognize that there needs to be a loosening up of the draconian language of that statute. We would have preferred, though, if there would have been a consistent explanation about why that provision is there in the first place. First we are told it was designed to thwart drug dealers (did the naval officer really come across as a drug dealer?), then we hear from the police chief that it’s intended to get uninsured drivers off the streets. Which is it? And, if it’s all about protecting us from uninsured drivers, then why not first make the determination that the driver is uninsured before snapping on the handcuffs?