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Fees don't please
Horror stories about civil remedial fees probably won't come true

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Date published: 6/29/2007

ON THE SUBJECT of "civil remedial fees"--surcharges that soon will multiply the sums traffic-law breakers must pay, for the purpose of funding Virginia transportation projects--we charged out of the gates in a Monday editorial ("Sherwood Forest drive") and ran blindly into the lane reserved for that crazy old nag Hysteria. So suggested House Speaker Bill Howell, R-Stafford, in a Wednesday op-ed ("New fees target worst drivers, boost safety)." So let's try a cooler start.

The first thing to know about these civil punishments, which start Sunday and can cost offending motorists up to $3,000 beyond normal fines and court costs, is that most cover serious driving crimes. Of 125 offenses--all misdemeanors or felonies--listed by the Office of the Executive Secretary of the (Virginia) Supreme Court in its analysis of the fees, 47 involve death, alcohol or drugs, or flagrant speeding. Others address incontestably dangerous behavior, from hauling prohibited cargo through a tunnel to passing on the crest of a hill to "operat[ing] a vehicle with a smokescreen (watch yourself, Double-Oh-Seven!)"; or outright defiance of the law, such as driving on a revoked license or fleeing the scene of an accident. There's very little on the list that's truly picayune or merely "technical."

But even the section's author, Del. David Albo, R-Springfield, admits to some discomfort with the inclusion of "fail[ing] to give proper signal," a misdemeanor that can trigger $1,050 in remedial fees (although Mr. Albo, a lawyer who defends many alleged traffic offenders, says that police officers invariably charge non-signalers under a less serious traffic statute not subject to the fee), and Mr. Howell allows that the State Code needs to be "cleaned up."

Both gentlemen were mystified by the Supreme Court office's listing of a felony version of "reckless driving" misdemeanors--failing to maintain proper control, passing a school bus, driving two vehicles abreast, and a dozen others. A felony conviction brings the clobbering $3,000 fee. Here's the explanation: Such misdemeanors become felonies when in perpetrating them, a motorist, driving on a suspended license, causes another's death.

The second point--the speaker is correct--is that no one in the legislature was keeping the fee schedule in a "top secret" folder. In bill or act form, it has been part of the public record for two sessions. If Virginians didn't know the details until this month, that's a failing of us guys in the media.

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