Fees for Driving Infractions to Be Reassessed

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 13, 2007

RICHMOND, July 12 -- Virginia Republican leaders, faced with growing opposition to the "abusive driver" fees that went into effect July 1, said Thursday that they will consider scrapping some of them when the General Assembly convenes in January.

The fees, some of which exceed $1,000 per infraction, were part of a transportation plan that lawmakers approved this year. They were designed to raise millions of dollars each year for road and transit projects by imposing surcharges onto the fines for Virginia motorists convicted of serious traffic offenses, such as driving under the influence.

But because of what legislators call an "error" and a "mistake," the fees also can be assessed on motorists who are convicted of less serious offenses. The surcharges did not receive much attention when lawmakers approved them Feb. 24., but the reaction has been overwhelmingly negative since Virginia residents learned about the fees this month.

"As a part-time legislature, we will make mistakes, and we will have to correct them," said House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith (R-Salem), who wants to revisit which misdemeanors the fees cover.

For example, someone criminally charged with driving too fast for road conditions will have to pay $300 a year for three years, in addition to the regular fine. A motorist convicted of having an obstructed view of traffic will have to pay $350 a year for three years, as will anyone convicted of driving more than 80 mph on an interstate, according to an analysis by the Supreme Court of Virginia.

"I think clearly the overwhelming majority of delegates and senators never meant or expected it would apply to these lesser charges," said Del. C.L. "Clay" Athey Jr. (R-Warren). "There was obviously a drafting error."

The fees, which Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) supported as part of the bipartisan transportation agreement, have become a top issue in this fall's legislative races. Many residents have contacted their legislators, expressing outrage that the fees do not apply to out-of-state motorists.

Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle (R-Virginia Beach) said the General Assembly probably will try to limit the fees to "truly reckless drivers." Stolle said some lawmakers also want to collect the fees from out-of-state motorists.

But some GOP legislators, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they don't want to offend House leaders, said they do not want to wait until January to act. Noting that drivers will be legally required to pay the fees in the interim, some lawmakers are advocating a special session this summer or fall.

A coalition of anti-tax activists and advocates for the poor also has started an online petition drive calling for a special session. The group wants the General Assembly to eliminate all of the new fees, not just those for Class 3 or 4 misdemeanors. As of Thursday, more than 1,200 people had signed the petition. Another petition received more than 36,000 signatures.

Sherry D. Sherry of Leesburg, who helped organize the petition drive, said the fees could trap drivers with limited incomes in a cycle of debt. She noted that someone convicted of a first-time DUI will have to pay $750 a year for three years.

"I am not trying to defend someone who gets a DUI, but I just know if someone gets a ticket and wants to rehabilitate their life and they work in a low-salary industry, this ticket will put them in a hole they will never climb out of," Sherry said.

Kaine, who has been advocating for the abuser fees since taking office, said through a spokesman Thursday that he "remains open to the possibility" of revising the charges. But Kevin Hall, the spokesman, said the governor still thinks the fees will make Virginia roads safer.

"It is important to remember most of these enhanced fees only apply to a small percentage of motorists who engage in criminal, reckless driving that causes accidents and injures and kills other people," Hall said.

The fees, which could raise as much as $65 million annually, were intended to be a partial substitute for a statewide tax increase, which Kaine supported but the Republican-controlled House opposed.

Stolle said the Senate, which had supported a tax increase, had tried to keep revenue generated from the fees to $28 million annually. But he said House Republican leaders insisted on at least $65 million, which meant the fees had to be higher and cover more offenses.

"The more money you try to generate, the more violations you have to pick up," said Stolle, adding that some lawmakers may want to cut the amount of money raised by $40 million to $50 million by scaling back the abuser fees.

In addition to the fees for misdemeanor and felony traffic convictions, motorists with eight or more points on their driving records will have to pay more. Those drivers have to pay $100 for the eight points and $75 for every additional point. Failure to pay will result in suspension of licenses.

Del. Brian J. Moran (D-Alexandria), who wants all of the new fees eliminated, said they "cause more problems than they solve."

"It is going to generate more driving on suspended licenses, which will clog up the court system and generate other expenses to society," Moran said.

Del. Thomas Davis Rust (R-Fairfax), one of the architects of the abuser-fee law, said he's surprised "by the volume of the outcry."

"If you don't break the law, you don't have a problem," said Rust, noting that the average Virginia motorist gets a ticket once every seven years.

But Rust's Democratic opponent, Jay Donahue, said he plans to make an issue of the fees in the fall.

"It is indefensible for legislators to adopt proposals that discriminate in favor of out-of-state drivers, excusing them from paying their fair share of our road construction and maintenance costs," Donahue wrote in an editorial scheduled to appear in local newspapers Friday.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company