Dant v. District of Columbia

Decision Date11 September 1987
Docket NumberNo. 86-5063,86-5063
Citation264 U.S.App.D.C. 284,829 F.2d 69
PartiesPatrick D. DANT, Appellant, v. DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, et al.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — District of Columbia Circuit

Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia (D.C. Civil No. 83-1063).

Richard W. Balsamo, Washington, D.C., for appellant.

Carol A. Sigmond, with whom Sara E. Lister and Mark R. Pohl, Washington, D.C., were on the brief, for appellee WMATA.

Edward E. Schwab, Asst. Corp. Counsel, with whom James R. Murphy, Acting Corp. Counsel, and Charles L. Reischel, Deputy Corp. Counsel, Washington, D.C., were on the brief, for appellee District of Columbia.

Before SILBERMAN, BUCKLEY and D.H. GINSBURG, Circuit Judges.

Opinion for the court filed by Circuit Judge BUCKLEY.

BUCKLEY, Circuit Judge:

A member of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority's ("WMATA") police force arrested Patrick D. Dant for not paying a forty-five cent fare before exiting a WMATA subway station located in the District of Columbia. Dant was then detained by District of Columbia police for several hours. At his arraignment he was charged with fare evasion and pleaded not guilty. The District of Columbia Corporation Counsel sought a conviction, but the Superior Court of the District of Columbia dismissed the case. Dant then brought this action for damages and injunctive relief against WMATA, the WMATA arresting officer, and the District of Columbia. The district court dismissed all claims against WMATA on grounds of sovereign immunity, and dismissed sua sponte the rest of the claims against the District of Columbia. Dant appeals.

We hold that in approving the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority Compact creating WMATA, Congress has foreclosed judicial remedy against WMATA for all torts, including invasions of federal civil rights, committed by WMATA in the exercise of police functions related to the arrest of suspected fare evaders; and that upon a showing of probable cause, the arresting officer is entitled to immunity from civil suit. We also hold that WMATA is immune from claims for the negligent design of its fare collection system. Appellant's claims against the District of Columbia for false arrest and imprisonment lacked merit because there was probable cause, and his malicious prosecution and abuse of process claims against the District were barred by absolute prosecutorial immunity. We also conclude that appellant's remaining constitutional and civil rights claim for WMATA's abuse of process under 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983 is insufficient as a matter of law.

On the other hand, the district court erred in dismissing appellant's common law claims against WMATA for negligent operation and maintenance of its fare collection system and for abuse of process as both of the allegations fall within the scope of WMATA's waiver of sovereign immunity. We therefore affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand the case to the district court for further proceedings on Dant's common law claims against WMATA for abuse of process and for negligence in the operation and maintenance of its fare collection system.


On November 6, 1966, Congress created WMATA by approving an interstate compact between the Commonwealth of Virginia and the State of Maryland to which the District of Columbia was also a signatory. Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority Compact, Pub.L. No. 89-774, 80 Stat. 1324 (1966), amended by Pub.L. No. 94-306, 90 Stat. 672 (1976) (authorizing creation of WMATA police force) ("Compact"). WMATA operates a system of underground and surface trains traveling to and from points in Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. ("metrorail"). Because this case relates to metrorail's fare collection system, a basic understanding of its operation must preface the discussion of our decision.

A. The Metrorail Farecard System

Metrorail's fare collection system is almost entirely automated. To enter the metrorail complex, patrons must purchase "farecards" from vending machines located at station entrances. Each farecard has a magnetic strip on which its fare value is recorded. Turnstile devices ("faregates") located in every station are designed to read these strips. To obtain access to the train platforms, a patron must insert his farecard in an entrance faregate that determines the value of his farecard, returns it to him, and allows him to pass if the farecard is worth at least the minimum fare. The area at metrorail stations between faregates and train platforms, including the trains themselves, is called the "paid area."

Although a patron may enter the metrorail system using a farecard worth only the minimum fare, he may actually owe a higher fare if he travels beyond a certain distance. There is also an additional charge for travel during rush hours. When exiting a station a patron must insert the same farecard he used to enter the metrorail system into an exit faregate. The exit faregate will determine the value of his card and the distance he traveled. If he owes WMATA additional fare, the exit faregate will not open, will emit a characteristic sound, and flash the sign "Go To Addfare." The patron must then proceed to an "Addfare" machine located within the paid area, introduce his farecard in it, and pay whatever additional fare his distance or time of travel requires. Upon payment, the Addfare machine subtracts the fare due from the balance recorded in the card's magnetic strip and returns the card to the patron. If the patron tries to pass through an exit faregate using a farecard other than the one he used to enter the metrorail system, the exit faregate will not be able to determine the distance traveled, will not open, and will flash the sign "Stop, See Attendant."

B. The Arrest

Appellant Dant lived and worked in the District of Columbia on April 15, 1982. According to appellant, that afternoon he boarded a train at metrorail's Metro Center station and got off two stops later at Dupont Circle. It was approximately five o'clock. He had two farecards in his possession, one of them doubling as a bus pass (called a "flashpass"). As he approached the 20th Street exit of the Dupont Circle station, he took out a card from his wallet and inserted it into an exit faregate. He passed through the faregate when it opened for the patron exiting ahead of him and reached from outside the enclosed paid area to retrieve his card from the faregate. At that moment he noticed a lighted sign on top of the faregate flashing "Stop, See Attendant." Dant retrieved his farecard, turned towards the faregate, and hesitated for a moment. He concedes that he then simply walked away.

Officer Joseph F. Lawrence of the WMATA police was on duty that afternoon at the Dupont Circle faregates leading to 20th Street. He observed the incident and approached Dant from behind. According to Dant, Lawrence stopped and escorted him back to the paid area through an emergency gate, led him to an Addfare machine, and asked to see his farecard. Dant took out one of his farecards, but does not know whether it was the card he used to enter the metrorail system at Metro Center station. When the officer inserted it into the Addfare machine, the machine flashed "Add 45 cents." At the time the minimum fare from Metro Center to Dupont Circle was sixty-five cents. The Addfare machine therefore must have determined the card was worth twenty cents. The record does not explain how appellant could have entered the metrorail system with a card worth less than the minimum fare, and there is no indication that Lawrence asked appellant whether he had another farecard.

Officer Lawrence placed Dant under arrest, bound him in handcuffs, and led him to the surface through the rush-hour crowd. According to Dant, at least one of his acquaintances passed by and saw him in handcuffs. Dant and Lawrence then waited approximately twenty minutes for a police car, which transferred Dant to a District of Columbia police precinct headquarters. He was eventually transferred to central headquarters, where he waited in a patrol wagon for processing. He was also confined to a cell during part of his stay. Police did not remove his handcuffs until he was released at midnight.

C. Criminal Proceedings

The District of Columbia Corporation Counsel charged Dant with a violation of D.C.Code Sec. 44-224 (1981), which provides:

No person shall ... knowingly enter or leave the paid area of a real [sic] transit station owned and/or operated by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority which is located within the corporate limits of the District of Columbia without paying the established fare or presenting a valid transfer for transportation on such public passenger vehicle or rail transit car.

Dant pleaded not guilty. Before trial, according to the complaint, the District of Columbia Corporation Counsel refused to drop charges unless Dant would agree to waive all claims for damages against WMATA and the District. Dant refused, and prosecution followed. The trial court dismissed the case.

D. Dant's Civil Action

Dant then brought this suit against WMATA, Lawrence, and the District of Columbia. The complaint recites the following counts: (1) false arrest and false imprisonment; (2) malicious prosecution; (3) negligence in the design, operation and maintenance of metrorail's farecard system, and in the training of WMATA police officers; (4) abuse of process; and (5) deprivation of civil rights in violation of 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983. All counts except the third (negligence) allege violations by both the District and WMATA. Officer Lawrence's conduct is implicated in counts one and five only.

Appellee WMATA moved under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) to dismiss all counts in the complaint against itself and appellee Lawrence. It argued that WMATA is equivalent to a state agency enjoying absolute immunity from tort liability, and that section 80...

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