By Daniela Deane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 21, 2007
An Arlington County judge delayed until the end of the month a decision on the constitutionality of Virginia's abusive-driver fees, saying yesterday that any ruling would be premature.
Arlington District Court Judge Thomas J. Kelley Jr. said he would rule whether the unpopular fees are constitutional if the defendant, Navy veteran Charles Mason, 35, is convicted of reckless driving Aug. 31. Mason's case is believed to be Northern Virginia's first challenge to the law.
Although the judge's ruling would not apply outside Arlington, it could influence other decisions across the state. Virginia judges have split on the constitutionality issue, meaning that ultimately the state Supreme Court probably will rule on the law.
On July 8, Mason was in full Navy uniform on his way to weekend drill duty with the Navy Reserve when he was stopped on northbound Interstate 395 near the Pentagon and ticketed for driving 75 mph in a 55 mph zone, his attorney said.
Under the fee law, which has triggered widespread uproar, Mason would owe $1,050 if convicted of speeding more than 20 mph over the limit, a misdemeanor reckless driving offense.
Kelley agreed with the state's argument that it was "premature" to rule on the defense motion before a conviction.
About 200,000 people have signed online petitions opposing the law, which took effect July 1 and imposes fees of $750 to $3,000 for serious traffic offenses. A growing number of legislators are calling for the fees to be repealed or modified. The fees are expected to raise $65 million a year and were enacted to help finance a massive transportation bill approved by the General Assembly in April.
Deputy State Solicitor General Stephen R. McCullough, who represented the state, argued that the Mason case is not likely to lead to any fees.
Mason, of Centreville, has only one previous speeding ticket. Because he was traveling 20 miles over the speed limit, the cutoff for a reckless driving offense, lawyers say the charge probably will be reduced to speeding, which does not carry an additional fee.
McCullough told the judge that although the state would like to have the issue resolved, it saw no "reason to rush."
"We agree that a ruling on the constitutionality of the abuser fees would be premature," J. Tucker Martin, a spokesman for Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell, said in a statement. "We believe the transportation bill -- and its provisions -- is constitutional," Martin said.
Holding up a big box of legal papers after the hearing, Mason's attorney, Kyle Courtnall, said: "I was ready to argue the motion. I wanted to argue it. If my client goes away, though, there are plenty of other people ready to take up this challenge."