U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, a man of many words on the Senate floor, had only four yesterday in Fairfax County court: "I plead no contest."
The 81-year-old Democrat from West Virginia sat on the crowded benches of traffic court after he declined to invoke what county authorities told him was his congressional immunity from prosecution for his role in a Route 50 fender bender. He paid $30 in court costs but received no fine.
Byrd was charged May 7 with failing to keep proper control of his car when he rammed the back of a Ford van with his rented Cadillac, but Fairfax County authorities tried to give him the easy way out.
After a patrol officer wrote the former Senate majority leader a ticket, police commanders and Fairfax Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr. (D) decided it was void based on Article 1, Section 6 of the U.S. Constitution. Experts on constitutional law said the provision was written in 1781 to protect members of Congress from harassment as they traveled across the country and to discourage people from trying to prevent the members from casting unpopular votes.
County officials interpreted the clause to mean that members of Congress could not be issued a traffic ticket while Congress was in session.
But several days later, Byrd, a noted constitutional scholar, decided he wanted the ticket after all. His staff contacted Fairfax police, who reinstated the summons.
Accompanied by two aides, Byrd arrived in General District Court just minutes before the 9:30 a.m. docket call. Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Andrew J. Kersey moved Byrd's case to the top of the list, and it was called shortly after 9:30 by General District Court Judge Robert J. Smith.
Byrd strode to the podium and declared, "I plead no contest."
Smith said the fine was normally $50, but for first offenders who plead guilty or no contest in their first appearance, the judge said, he typically suspends the fine, which he did. Defense lawyers familiar with Fairfax traffic court said the handling of the case was basically routine.
After Byrd paid his court costs, he declined to answer reporters' questions about the incident, although he did stop to answer some questions about the disappearance of John F. Kennedy Jr.
Byrd was driving to West Virginia on a Friday afternoon with his wife, Erma, when the accident occurred. As traffic came to a halt on Route 50 just past West Ox Road, house painter Chris Lee stopped his 1990 Econoline van in the left lane. Byrd's 1999 Cadillac didn't stop until it was too late, and its front fender slid under the rear bumper of Lee's van.
A tow truck was needed to unhook the two vehicles, and Byrd's car was not drivable. Police estimated damage to Byrd's rented car at $7,000 and damage to Lee's van at $700. Lee said he didn't hear any sounds indicating that Byrd hit the brakes or swerved. "Just boom," Lee said shortly after the accident.
Lee did not appear in traffic court yesterday and could not be reached for comment.
After the collision, Byrd was taken to the nearby Fair Oaks police station. While he waited for an aide to collect him and his wife, word of his traffic ticket reached police headquarters. Commanders there recalled that Byrd might be immune under the constitutional clause stating that members of Congress "shall in all cases, except treason, felony and breach of the peace, be privileged from arrest" both while attending a session and traveling to or from the Capitol.
Horan agreed that a traffic violation didn't qualify as treason, a felony or a breach of the peace, so Fairfax police retrieved the summons from Byrd and voided it.
But after news of Byrd's release from the traffic charge was reported in The Washington Post, the senator instructed staff members to have the ticket reinstated.
Spokeswoman Ann Adler said Byrd hadn't thought to waive his constitutional immunity at the time, but now intended to do so. "He wants to do the right thing legally," Adler said.
Byrd will receive four points on his driving record for what his staff said was his first traffic ticket.
CAPTION: Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) pleaded no contest in Fairfax County General District Court for his role in a May 7 fender bender.