A Question of Ethics

Must Traffic Tickets Be Disclosed to Ethics Committee?

June 25, 2007

Q: I am a Member with a question regarding the new resolution requiring the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct to take action whenever a Member is formally charged with criminal conduct. Last week, a police officer pulled me over for failing to use my turn signal. At first, I was quite sure that the officer had made a mistake because I specifically remembered signaling. As it turns out, unbeknownst to me, my rear indicator light was out. The officer gave me a ticket stating that I had violated Virginia Section 46.2-860 (whatever that is!), and that I have an August court date in Arlington. Under the new resolution, do I need to report this to the ethics committee?

A: On June 5, in response to the indictment of Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.), House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) successfully introduced a resolution providing that when a Member “is indicted or otherwise formally charged with criminal conduct” the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct must either conduct an investigation or report to the House its reasons for not conducting an investigation.

Your situation raises two questions regarding Hoyer’s resolution. First, does it apply to traffic tickets like yours? And second, if the resolution does apply, does it require Members to self-report?

The first question turns on whether you were “indicted or otherwise formally charged with criminal conduct.” Believe it or not, while not all traffic tickets are criminal charges, a violation of the statute cited on your ticket is a criminal offense. Under the statute, failure to give adequate signal of one’s intention to turn is reckless driving, which is punishable by up to 12 months in jail. So, regardless of whether you are actually convicted, you at the very least have been charged with criminal conduct. Because the new resolution applies to such charges, it appears to cover your ticket.

The resolution’s legislative history supports this interpretation. During the debate preceding the resolution, Hoyer himself responded to repeated questions from Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.) regarding whether the resolution would apply to minor offenses like yours. Hoyer responded that for criminal charges “whatever the act ... the ethics committee will look at it.” He added that he had “full confidence” that, in reviewing matters covered by the resolution, the ethics committee would choose not to investigate “de minimus” charges. In fact, in the specific case of traffic tickets, Hoyer said he expected that the committee would have a form available stating that it would not take further action.

Assuming then that the resolution applies to your ticket, the next question is whether you should report it to the ethics committee. Again, this issue arose during the legislative debate. Dreier asked Hoyer whether Members would be compelled to inform the committee when they face criminal charges. Hoyer responded: “There is nothing in there that says the Member is compelled to do anything.”

Nonetheless, even if the resolution does not explicitly require Members to disclose criminal charges to the committee, there are reasons why a Member might choose to do so voluntarily. For one, disclosure limits the risk that a Member will be perceived as trying to conceal something from the committee.

On the other hand, disclosure does carry risks of its own. Even though Hoyer said he has full confidence that the committee would summarily dismiss trivial offenses such as traffic tickets, there is no guarantee how the committee will view your charge. Once a criminal charge is before the committee, it is for the committee to determine whether to conduct an investigation. While it seems unlikely the committee would investigate a mere traffic ticket, until the committee clarifies its position in this regard I suppose it is impossible to be certain what the committee would do.

The uncertainty surrounding committee action touches on a second potential consequence of disclosure. Because of this uncertainty, some Members choose to obtain legal counsel any time the committee even considers their conduct. As Dreier observed during the resolution’s debate, the resolution could turn a simple traffic ticket into a “huge legal fee.”

Yet where a Member merely transmits a traffic ticket to the ethics committee and does nothing more, it is conceivable that a Member might choose to do so without legal counsel. A Member might wonder what useful advice an attorney could provide regarding mailing a ticket and therefore decide to retain legal counsel only if the committee took further action. If a Member does choose to disclose on his own, he should first confirm that the offense for which he is charged is actually a criminal offense.

To sum up, while not all traffic tickets are charges of criminal conduct, your reckless driving charge appears to be covered by the new resolution. By the way, other reckless driving offenses in Virginia include exceeding the speed limit by 20 miles per hour or more, as well as driving a vehicle with “improperly adjusted brakes.” So keep an eye on your speedometer and get those brakes checked.


© Copyright 2007, Roll Call Inc. Reprinted with permission. Widely regarded as the leading publication for Congressional news and information, Roll Call has been the newspaper of Capitol Hill since 1955. For more information, visit www.rollcall.com.

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