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Auto Owners Beware -- D.C. Cops Throw Drivers in Jail for Expired Tags, AAA Cries Foul

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Shown here is highway traffic outside Washington, D.C., in Virginia. (AP)

In a city that hosts its fair share of murders and terror plots, Washington, D.C., police are cracking down on another threat to the nation's capital -- expired vehicle registrations. 

To the frustration of forgetful drivers, Metropolitan Police Department officers are throwing people in jail for letting their tag renewals lapse. The practice provoked somewhat of a backlash last year after a local mother from Maryland was jailed for what in many places would be a routine traffic offense punishable by fine. But the department continues to reserve and exercise the right to throw drivers in the clink for missing the DMV deadline, no matter where they're from. 

The practice has drawn the attention of AAA, the nation's largest motor club and travel organization, which is calling on the D.C. Council to review the policy. 

"This is ridiculous," AAA spokesman John Townsend said, noting that surrounding jurisdictions would not arrest for the same offense. 

Accounts from those who've been locked up suggest it is not just a tactic designed to give police an opening to hassle and root out bona-fide criminals. Townsend said in one case, police arrested a mother on her way to pick up her child from school, with her younger child in the car. In another incident, a D.C. resident on his way to meet up with his girlfriend was arrested and forced to spend the night in a series of holding cells. 

A spokeswoman with the city's police said officers generally issue a $100 fine for registrations that have been expired for fewer than 30 days. But spokeswoman Gwendolyn Crump noted that D.C. Code provides the authority to arrest for more egregious offenses. 

"It is prohibited in the district to operate a motor vehicle that is unregistered. This is a crime that can result in arrest and a traffic citation," she said in an email. 

According to D.C. Code, it is illegal to drive a vehicle without proper registration, punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and/or imprisonment of up to 30 days. 

But some of those taken into custody are puzzled. They say the district has bigger problems on its hands than delinquent registrations, and are hoping the city takes a second look at the practice. 

"Of all places, D.C. could be using its time more prudently," said the D.C. resident who was arrested for registration violation in August 2010. The resident asked not to be identified because he doesn't want his online reputation ruined by being linked to criminal wrongdoing.

The individual detailed his experience in an interview with FoxNews.com, describing a roller coaster night that started when an officer pulled him over on his way to meet up with his girlfriend on U Street, a popular nighttime haunt for jazz lovers and revelers. He had recently moved from Maryland to D.C., and his registration was 10 days overdue. 

He said he found it "a bit odd" when he was told to get out of the car, and handcuffed for the offense. 

At first, it appeared the incident would be quickly resolved. His girlfriend was told to come to the precinct with $100 in order to get him out, he said. 

She did that, but he wasn't released. 

Instead, the traffic offender said he was transported from the precinct to another holding cell in the basement of a separate courthouse. His detainment lasted hours. Confused, at one point he asked an official whether the department processes a lot of people for registration violations. 

According to his account, after the official replied yes, he made a crack about "hardened criminals." The official then snapped that he wouldn't be saying that if someone he loved got hit by someone else with an expired registration. 

"That argument really does not make much sense to me," he told FoxNews.com. "An expired registration really has no bearing whatsoever on your ability to drive a car." 

At about eight hours of detainment, the resident was released. When he finally returned to his car, he realized the police officer who moved it left it illegally parked with all the doors unlocked. On the car was a fresh $50 ticket. 

"It's a nice cherry on top of the story," he said, noting the ticket was later thrown out. He accepted fault for the expired registration but questioned why that was an arrestable offense. 

Days earlier, Maryland mother Nycci Nellis had a similar experience. Her registration was three months expired. She acknowledged being completely in the wrong, but said it had slipped her mind. 

"I'm a mother of five and a business owner, it fell off my plate," said Nellis, a D.C. food and wine writer. 

She spent the night in two jails, until her husband picked her up six hours later. 

"They didn't make a single dollar off of me," she said. "I just don't understand." 

D.C. Councilwoman Mary Cheh, whom AAA asked to investigate the matter, said the authority to arrest has been on the books for awhile but questioned whether the practice is prudent. 

"I think it is an invitation to misuse," she told FoxNews.com. "I would want to know what the justification is." 

She said an expired registration is not comparable to driving without a license. 

"It doesn't speak to whether you're a danger," she said. "It might speak to your absent-mindedness." 

Townsend claimed the policy of handing out fines for registrations expired for fewer than 30 days was implemented recently. D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier said in an interview last year that the authority to arrest is "discretionary."

Perhaps demonstrating this policy, the D.C. resident who was arrested last year said he was pulled over again this past summer for a registration two weeks overdue. He received only a warning -- and acknowledged he's got to get better about renewing his tags. 

But Townsend expressed concern with the current policy, and relayed the case of a woman who was arrested this past May for having a registration expired by 36 days. In that case, she had a three-year-old child in the car and was on the way to pick up her older child from school. 

According to AAA, the arresting officer informed her the children would have to go to social services if she couldn't find someone to watch them while she was driven to jail. The mother, though, was able to convince a teacher to watch the children. 

"There have been a number of other situations like this," AAA wrote in an email to Cheh Friday requesting the council take a closer look at the policy.