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Sembach v. Mayor of the District of Columbia

February 20, 2003



Michael Sembach was stopped by a police officer in the District of Columbia on January 7, 2002, and issued two "notices of infraction."*fn1 Because the D.C. Code dealing with motor vehicles and traffic control, § 50-2302.04, states, "The Notice of Infraction shall be the summons and complaint for purposes of this subchapter," Mr. Sembach complains that allowing a police officer to issue court process violates the Fifth, Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

Mr. Sembach alleges that allowing a police officer to issue a summons conflicts with the duties of the Mayor of the District of Columbia, pursuant to DC Code § 2-1801.01(a)(b)(2), the United States Attorney for the District of Columbia, and the Corporation Counsel of the District of Columbia. He believes that this practice illegally allows police officers to engage in the practice of law without being a member of the Bar. Ultimately, he asserts that these practices divest the Adjudication Services Tribunal of the Department of Motor Vehicles and the D.C. Superior Court of jurisdiction and he seeks a declaratory order and injunction proclaiming any adjudication null and void.*fn2

Mr. Sembach's complaint was filed February 2, 2002. On behalf of the District of Columbia, Mayor Williams, and D.C. Police Officer R.C. Goodman, the Corporation Counsel filed a Motion to Dismiss on March 2, 2002.*fn3 Mr. Sembach filed a cross motion to dismiss on April 26, 2002, wherein he argued against the District's position.


Mr. Sembach has presented the Court with a unique opportunity to forestall enforcement of all traffic and vehicular violations under the authority of the Metropolitan Police Department in the District of Columbia. Unfortunately for those drivers who receive frequent tickets, the Court must decline the invitation to interfere with law enforcement. The complaint fails to state a claim on which relief might be granted and must be dismissed pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

In evaluating a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim on which relief can be granted, a court must accept the allegations in the complaint as true. Croixland Props, Ltd. P'ship v. Corcoran, 174 F.3d 213, 215 (D.C. Cir. 1999). All reasonable inferences must be drawn in favor of Mr. Sembach and the court should only dismiss the complaint "'if it is clear that no relief could be granted under any set of facts that could be proved consistent with the allegations.'" Id. (quoting Hishon v. King & Spaulding, 467 U.S. 69, 73 (1984)).

Under 12(b)(6), a court "does not test whether the plaintiff will prevail on the merits, but instead whether the claimant has properly stated a claim." Price v. Crestar Sec. Corp., 44 F. Supp. 2d 351, 353 (D.D.C. 1999). A 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss challenges the legal sufficiency of the complaint. Johnson-El v. District of Columbia, 579 A.2d 163, 166 (D.C. 1990).

Putting these standards to the test here, the Court first notes that the Fourteenth Amendment does not apply to the District of Columbia. Bolling v. Sharpe, 347 U.S. 497, 498-99 (1954). Second, the Court notes that Mr. Sembach was not criminally prosecuted for his traffic violations and, therefore, the Sixth Amendment is not applicable. See D.C. Code § 50-2301.01 (purpose of statute governing proceedings before the tribunal is to decriminalize and to provide for administrative adjudication of certain traffic offenses) Thus, these parts of the complaint must be dismissed.

What remain are Mr. Sembach's due process and equal protection claims under the Fifth Amendment. Neither of these survives analysis.

A. Due Process

"[A] substantive due process [claim]... in our circuit requires the plaintiff to show'grave unfairness' by state (or District) officials." Tri County Indus., Inc. v. District of Columbia, 104 F.3d 455, 459 (D.C. Cir. 1997) (quoting Silverman v. Barry, 845 F.2d 1072, 1080 (D.C. Cir. 1988). "Only [1] a substantial infringement of state law prompted by personal or group animus, or [2] a deliberate flouting of the law that trammels significant personal or property rights, qualifies for relief...." Silverman v. Barry, 845 F.2d at 1080. A mere violation of state or District law does not give rise to a substantive due process violation, although "the manner in which the violation occurs as well as it consequences are crucial factors to be considered." Comm. of U.S. Citizens in Nicar. v. Reagan, 859 F.2d 929, 944 (D.C. Cir. 1988).

It requires "genuinely drastic" government action to trammel significant personal or property rights before a substantive due process claim can be made. Tri County Indus., 104 F.3d at 459. "[U]nless the victim of government imposition has pushed its local remedies to the hilt, it ordinarily will not be able to show the necessary substantiality." Id.

Receiving a traffic ticket – or multiple traffic tickets sufficient to cause vehicle impoundment – does not, without more, show a grave unfairness on the part of government officials. And unfairness is not Mr. Sembach's claim. Rather, he argues that Officer Goodman is legally incapable of issuing a "complaint and summons" and that the Mayor and other named officials have improperly abrogated their responsibilities by allowing him to do so. These arguments fail because they do not show "a deliberate flouting of the ...

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