Public Safety, Traffic Safety, Restaurant Revitalization Measures All Move Forward

At the most recent Legislative Meeting, three major pieces of reform legislation all moved one step closer to the legislative finish line. Given that each of the three bills encapsulated multiple smaller prior bills within them, this only further emphasizes the scope of what was accomplished. In legislative parlance, an “omnibus” measure is a bill that incorporates multiple other measures. With progress on three such overarching bills, the most recent Legislative Meeting was itself an omnibus of omnibus measures.

Public Safety

Attracting the most attention at the most recent meeting was the Secure DC Omnibus public safety measure, which incorporated all or portions of a dozen previously introduced bills. Every councilmember had introduced or co-introduced at least one if not several of the twelve component measures combined into the Secure DC bill. This bill also makes permanent some prior changes the Council had passed earlier on an emergency or temporary basis. The goal of the measure was to respond to the public’s clear call for action to improve public safety in the District while avoiding measures that would not provide actual, measurable results. The bill passed with no votes in opposition.

Among the components of the bill are measures to:

  • create new felony offenses for unlawful discharge of a firearm (firing a firearm in public), endangerment with a firearm, and unlawfully discarding firearms/ammunition
  • expand the definition of carjacking to include not just incidents when the car is taken from a victim who is in the car, but also if the victim is within sight of the car, the perpetrator can take immediate possession of it, and intends to do so
  • create a permanent standalone offense of strangulation
  • create a new “directing organized retail theft” offense
  • extend for an additional 225 days (in addition to the previously approved 225 days) expanded pre-trial detention measures, so that the effectiveness of the measures can be analyzed prior to decisions regarding their further renewal
  • declare temporary drug-free zones, with substantial requirements for advance notice to the public, councilmembers, and agency heads
  • maintain bans on chokeholds and limits on vehicular pursuits by police, while clarifying the language surrounding each
  • enhance penalties for committing crimes of violence against senior citizens, vulnerable adults, transit workers, or on Department of Parks and Recreation property
  • create mandatory bimonthly law enforcement shooting reviews, to analyze the causes of, and potential for retaliatory action following, all fatal shootings
  • speed up date at which a previously enacted expansion of criminal record sealing and expungement can be requested by affected individuals, from October of 2027 to October of this year
  • allow for civil violations for transit fare evasion to be more effectively enforced
  • ban the wearing of masks in the commission or intended commission of crimes, or for intimidation, but not simply if it causes fear for personal safety. Masks worn for health, religious, or First Amendment purposes are exempt.
  • require monthly reports on the performance of the 911 call center, and mandating improvements to the 311 system
  • expand the Sentencing Commission, including providing voting seats to the Chief of the Metropolitan Police Department and a dedicated seat for a returning citizen
  • create a hospitality job training program at the DC Jail, and ensure that nutritional meals are served there
  • delay until 2025 the requirement that businesses accept cash payments

The bill’s passage at the most recent Legislative Meeting is the first of two required Council votes on the measure. The second vote could come in March. When all of the bill’s measures would go into effect is uncertain. First, while all District legislation faces a mandatory and unconscionable 30-day Congressional “layover” or waiting period before going into effect, changes to the criminal code were singled out by Congress 50 years ago in the Home Rule Act as requiring a layover double the normal length.

Given how seldom today’s Congress is in session, that double-length 60 Congressional day layover will be quite protracted. Additionally, even after presumably surviving its Congressional layover, since a number of the bill’s provisions cost money (or have a fiscal impact, in Council parlance), they will not go into effect unless they are funded in an upcoming budget. This will lead to further delays.

Restaurant Revitalization

Much like the public safety omnibus, the Restaurant Revitalization and Dram Shop Clarification Amendment Act, incorporated portions of five prior bills that, collectively, had been introduced by seven of the councilmembers.

Unlike the Secure DC bill, which was subject to a number of amendments prior to receiving its first Council vote, the omnibus restaurant reform measure saw many of the proposed restaurant reform amendments ultimately held back so that they could be further refined, and/or incorporated into the draft measure, prior to the Council’s second vote on the bill. The first vote on the bill was unanimous.

As currently drafted, the bill would modify the definitions and standards in the District’s dram shop law, which determines grounds for liability in incidents where an intoxicated individual leaves a liquor-licensed business and subsequently crashes their vehicle leading to damage or injury. The bill brings District law more in line with other jurisdictions, which will likely decrease the unparalleled high cost of liquor liability insurance in the District.

The bill makes permanent provisions in effect currently via emergency/temporary legislation, namely a ban on food delivery platforms limiting the number of drivers handling a certain restaurant’s deliveries simply due to the commission that restaurant pays the delivery platform. The bill also requires restaurants to make their restrooms available to delivery drivers, and it mandates that delivery driver working conditions be studied by the Mayor with a report due to the Council by July 1, 2025.

As passed at first reading, the bill exempts service fee payments from the calculation of restaurant revenue for the purpose of a commercial landlord’s determination of lease payments. This aspect of the bill in particular will be further discussed prior to the Council’s second vote on the bill. Similarly, a proposed amendment to accelerate the elimination of the tipped minimum wage was withdrawn at the most recent Legislative Meeting so that it could be further deliberated prior to a second Council vote.

Traffic Safety

The third and final omnibus measure of the day, the Strengthening Traffic Enforcement, Education, and Responsibility (STEER) Act, received its second and final unanimous vote from the Council at the most recent Legislative Meeting. The STEER Act incorporated portions of three prior bills that collectively had been introduced by nine of the councilmembers.

The bill would allow for the first time that infractions captured by automated enforcement devices (such as traffic cameras) will generate a parallel and distinct system of point penalties. Whereas points assigned by police accrue to drivers, the new points generated by traffic cameras will count towards a specific vehicle. After multiple repeat violations in a limited timeframe, an implicated vehicle can be booted or towed. Speeding eleven or more miles per hour over the limit, as well as reckless driving, will generate points for this purpose.

A pilot program under this bill would allow for the vehicles of frequent offenders to have speed governing technology installed. Based on geolocation of the driver’s location and each road’s speed limit, the technology would assure these drivers could not exceed mandated speeds. Additionally, since the ultimate goal of traffic safety trumps the importance of the revenue generated by traffic fines, residents would be able to waive up to $500 in fines by attending safe driving classes offered by the DMV. Finally, DC’s Attorney General would have the authority to sue dangerous drivers, regardless of whether they live in DC or not.

Other Measures

In other action at the most recent Legislative Meeting, Joel Caston was approved as the Council’s designee to the Sentencing Commission. Caston is a returning citizen and was the first-ever Advisory Neighborhood Commission representative from the DC Jail. As mentioned earlier, if the Secure DC bill becomes law, a reserved seat on the Sentencing Commission for a returning citizen will become a permanent designation.

The second of two necessary votes to formally designate Macarthur High School under that moniker was sent back to the Committee of the Whole for further consideration. The bill received the first of two necessary votes at the prior Legislative Meeting, based on the argument that the Macarthur name was generated via an extensive process involving the school’s constituents, and referenced the school’s location on Macarthur Boulevard (not potentially suspect elements of the history of General Douglas Macarthur). But since it now appears that students are interested in initiating a process to find a different name, the bill is now on hold.

The Council’s next Legislative Meeting is scheduled for March 5.