By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 9, 2007
A U.S. Navy veteran has filed what lawyers say is the first legal challenge in Northern Virginia to the state's new so-called abusive driver fees.
Charles Mason was in full uniform and en route to weekend drill duty with the Navy Reserve when he was stopped on northbound Interstate 395 near the Pentagon on July 8, his lawyer said yesterday. Ticketed for driving 75 mph in a 55 mph zone, Mason, of Centreville, will owe $1,050 if convicted of reckless driving.
In a motion filed Tuesday in Arlington County General District Court, Mason is seeking a ruling that the new fees are unconstitutional. Proponents of the fees have argued that they apply to only the worst of the state's drivers. Mason's attorney disagrees.
"This guy is right out of central casting. He's a veteran, in uniform, with a perfect driving record," said Kyle M. Courtnall, the attorney. "Obviously a lot of people are upset about this law and want to challenge it, but you have to wait for the right guy to come along."
Although Courtnall said Mason's driving record is spotless, court records show that Mason was issued a speeding ticket last year in Annandale and paid a $90 fine. Reached later, Courtnall said Mason is still the perfect person to challenge the law. Mason said, "I wouldn't say my driving record is perfect, but I'm hardly a menace on the road."
The motion further escalates the battle over the fees, which took effect July 1 and have triggered public outrage. More than 170,000 people have signed online petitions opposing the fees, which range from $750 to $3,000 for serious traffic offenses, and a growing number of legislators have called for repealing them. The fees were enacted to help finance a massive transportation bill and are expected to raise $65 million a year.
Judges in Richmond and Henrico County ruled this month that the fees are unconstitutional because they cover only Virginia residents -- the same argument Mason is making. A Henrico County Circuit Court judge heard arguments yesterday in an appeal filed by prosecutors. The judge, L.A. Harris Jr., said he would try to rule within a week, a court clerk said. The rulings in Richmond and Henrico would apply only to those jurisdictions.
Proponents of the transportation bill said yesterday that they were not surprised by the latest challenge to the fees. Legal experts have predicted an avalanche of challenges as traffic cases wind their way through the court system.
Delacey Skinner, a spokeswoman for Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), would not comment on Mason's case but said Kaine "remains committed to addressing the concerns raised by Virginians about the abuser fees during the General Assembly session in January." Kaine has resisted calls for a special legislative session to consider the fees before then.
G. Paul Nardo, chief of staff to House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford), said Howell is monitoring the legal proceedings but is convinced that the law is constitutional. "It's a major piece of legislation, and the speaker expects the courts to find it to be constitutional," Nardo said.
The fees were supported by members of both parties but were conceived by Republicans to avoid raising taxes. Public anger over them has taken center stage in a growing number of Virginia legislative elections, threatening incumbents.
Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax), who has supported the fees, said Mason's attorneys are "grandstanding, just trying to get their names in the paper" because a judge would probably end up reducing Mason's charge to improper driving, a minor ticket that does not carry the fees.
"There has not been a single person in Virginia, in my 19 years of practicing law, who had a 75 in a 55 zone with a perfect driving record who ever got convicted of reckless driving," said Albo, a former traffic court prosecutor who now defends clients in traffic court. Albo has drafted legislation to expand the law to out-of-state drivers when the legislature convenes in January.
But Courtnall said he objects to the premise of the law, which he said is sweeping up drivers such as Mason who are not dangerous. "What the legislature essentially did was refuse to raise taxes, and insert a fundraising element into a criminal law statute," he said.
Mason, 35, was pulled over by a Virginia state trooper at 7:25 a.m. about three-quarters of a mile north of Glebe Road. Courtnall, who plans to argue that Mason was not speeding, that he was being passed by other cars and that the officer did not have a radar gun. Mason, who works in Herndon as a consultant, said he was on active duty in the Navy for 11 years until last year. He served part of that time in Bahrain.
Mason's motion is scheduled to be heard in the Arlington court Monday. The Virginia attorney general's office, which defends the state in lawsuits, declined to comment.
Staff writer Jonathan Mummolo and researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.