Armed With Checkbooks and Excuses, First Casualties of Va. Fees Go to Court

By Jonathan Mummolo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 12, 2007

The labor pains were coming, so Jessica Hodges got going. The 26-year-old bank teller from Burke sped toward Inova Fairfax Hospital, but before she got there, the law got her -- 57 mph in a 35 zone. Reckless driving.

Hodges's labor pains subsided -- they turned out to be a false alarm -- but the agony from her ticket is mounting. She was found guilty of the July 3 offense and given a $1,050 civil fee on top of a judge-imposed $100 fine and court costs, making her one of the first to be hit with Virginia's new "abusive driver fees," which have been greeted by widespread public outrage.

"It's crazy," said an unregretful Hodges. "Having a baby's more important. Of course I'm going to speed."

Anger and exasperation have been common sentiments recently in Fairfax General District Court, where fee-facing drivers such as Hodges have started to join the daily swarm of traffic offenders. After waiting hours to give their side of the story to judges -- several of whom seemed just as annoyed with the fees as defendants -- many nevertheless left owing enormous sums that they said would be difficult to pay.

Those lucky enough to live out of state or to have been pulled over before the fees went into effect July 1 -- the "magic date," as one judge called it -- escaped the penalties, as did many who hired attorneys who were able to argue for lesser charges or continuances.

The fees, which range from $750 to $3,000, were passed by the General Assembly in the spring as part of a package aimed at funding scores of transportation projects. Backers said the fees would both raise money and improve highway safety by targeting the state's worst drivers -- those guilty of severe traffic offenses such as DUI, reckless driving and driving on a suspended license.

But the fees have since been vilified by an angry public (more than 170,000 people have signed an online petition to repeal them), denounced by lawmakers who once supported them and ruled unconstitutional by judges in two localities who said they violate equal protection rights guaranteed under the 14th Amendment. A Centreville man convicted of reckless driving filed a challenge to the fees in Arlington County General District Court on the same grounds.

Nonetheless, the penalties remain in effect, and offenders have started to feel their pinch. Melissa Norquest, 33, of Manassas shelled out $522 Tuesday after being found guilty of reckless driving for going 56 mph in a 35 mph zone July 3. She will pay the rest in installments.

Norquest took issue with a provision that exempts out-of-state drivers from paying the fees. If you don't live in Virginia, she said, "you just pay your l'il $100 fine and go on your way. . . . If they're going to make it for Virginia residents, they should also make it for whoever drives through Virginia or get rid of it completely. I mean, you want the whole state to be safe, right?"

Norquest, who works for Fairfax County Family Services, also said she did not see the point of hiring a lawyer at a cost of hundreds or thousands of dollars. "You're either paying for one or you're paying for the other," she said.

Defendants weren't the only ones grousing about the penalties.

"Quite frankly, these are going to be a major burden on the clerk's office," Judge Michael J. Cassidy said Monday while explaining the fees during his opening remarks to the crowded courtroom. "I realize that these might be a financial burden. . . . It was not the clerk's choice to impose these fees."

Bob Battle, a Richmond attorney who was in Fairfax traffic court Tuesday, said disapproval among judges is widespread.

"Judges, like other people, don't like them," he said. "Two have made it loud and clear, but so many of them out there are convinced that [the fees are] unconstitutional."

Battle said he thinks the fees are excessive. It's "sort of a kick-them-while-they're-down mentality," he said. "I think people who were charged with reckless driving, speeding or DUI were crazy not to have a lawyer before.. . . With a DUI defendant, you mean the potential year in jail, a $2,500 fine, at best a restricted license, the classes they have to go to, insurance wasn't a sufficient punishment?"

Because post-July 1 defendants make up only a small fraction of the caseload, it's too soon to determine what effect, if any, they will have on the judicial system, said Nancy Lake, Fairfax General District Court clerk. "I think it might have an effect in September, when most of the docket are these types of cases," she said.

Kathryn Bogush, 37, of Centreville caught a break in her case from a judge who amended her charge because she has a good driving record.

"Your [offense is] after that magic date of July 1," Judge Lisa A. Mayne said to Bogush, who was facing a reckless driving charge for going 80 mph in a 55 mph zone. "On the other hand, you have a plus-five driving record. I will take that into account."

Minutes later, a smiling Bogush was headed to the cashier after her charge was lowered to simple speeding, thereby avoiding the civil fee. "I was thankful she changed it," Bogush said.

Not everyone was so lucky. Upon hearing that he would have to pay the first $350 of his civil fee after being convicted of reckless driving, Samuel Ortez, 34, of Woodbridge, a truck driver and father of two from El Salvador, stared blankly for a moment outside the cashier's office, his eyes watering slightly.

"It's going to affect the bills," he said quietly in Spanish, his nephew Leo Ortez interpreting.

People who are unable to pay the first installment the day of their conviction are charged an additional $10 and are given 90 days to six months to pay, depending on the amount of the fee, Lake said.

Some, like Hodges, thought they had a legitimate excuse for speeding and would be able to get the charge lowered.

But when it came time to testify, Hodges said she felt rushed and couldn't adequately explain her situation to the judge, who found her guilty.

She said that she plans to appeal the decision.

She and her husband, Jeff, a massage therapist, barely go out and are living basically week-to-week to support 17-month-old Madison and infant Alessandra, born July 19, she said.

If the appeal is denied, her husband will probably have to work overtime, she said, but she's hoping a second judge will dismiss her case because of the circumstances.

"I'm getting out of here," Hodges said, "before I have to pay for any new roads."

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