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Fees don't please

June 29, 2007 12:35 am

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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.

Third: Anyone--though his driving record be white as snow--is subject to these fees, which can't be set aside or pared down by a judge once the basic conviction occurs. A separate route to getting tagged with remedial add-on charges is to build up "bad points" on your driving record--though the costs here are more modest and often can be dissolved by enrollment in a state-approved better-driving course.

In sum, an 80-year-old widow with little income having her peace of mind shattered and her meager savings depleted by a single innocent traffic mistake is a highly unlikely--we're talking lotto-jackpot odds--scenario. But that's not to say the new law is Heaven-sent.

The fees apply only to Virginia residents, excluding out-of-staters who break the same laws. (Virginia can't force the Ohio DMV to apply it to lead-footed Buckeyes on our stretch of I-95.) Like punitive damages assessed in a lawsuit, the fees import criminal fines to the civil sphere and rename them. Also like punitive damages, which usually outstrip normal compensatory damages, the fees are larger than the fines and court costs associated with the linked infractions. For instance, drinking while driving is a Class 4 misdemeanor good for a maximum fine of $250. Under the remedial-fee schedule, you pay an extra $900. All in all, Richmond's gift to the Virginia Code raises interesting "equal protection" and "cruel and unusual punishment" constitutional arguments.

Perhaps most troubling, these fees exist expressly to "generate revenue from drivers whose proven dangerous driving behavior places significant financial burdens upon the Commonwealth." Traditional fines and court costs surely do that now. How much should individual miscreants--a high proportion of whom are single-offense, dumb kids (remember when you were 19, and be frightened)--be punished? It's not obvious how someone who operates a vehicle with a revoked license in Woodbridge helps wear out a road in Bristol or creates the need for a new cloverleaf in Virginia Beach.

Moreover, how will the fees corrupt the criminal-justice process? If the state falls short of revenue, will it goad localities to cast a wider net for rule-breaking motorists? Conversely, Mr. Albo concedes that some police officers may undercharge and some judges knock down charges to spare offenders--those who aren't otherwise bad sorts--a triple financial penalty.

The more dreadful speculations about civil remedial fees are mostly campfire tales. But we've been walked, watered, and brushed, and there's not a whiff of loco weed on our breath. So permit us to say this: Crimes deserve fines, roads deserve taxes. Mix the two? Neigh.





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