Fee fiasco worsens

Column by David Cox

What a mess this abusive-driver fee fiasco is revealing. Legislators who, just a few months ago, boasted of their great new transportation bill are now disavowing it.

With good reason, especially as popular revulsion increases in light of more and more facts. Like: The chief patron, David Albo, a Republican from Fairfax, happens to be a lawyer who specializes in traffic cases. Coincidence? Let’s be generous and say “maybe.” But not at all coincidental is that local courts face a huge glut of cases arising from people contesting the tickets they received: It’s one thing to pay a fine, but facing fees of up to $1,000/year for three years makes hiring an attorney and going to court worthwhile. Might we call this the “Traffic Lawyer Relief Act of 2007”?

And what of the costs in time and money resulting from the inevitable court backlog? Is the law even constitutional? Some dispute whether fining – I mean “feeing” – Virginia offenders and not Marylanders is even legal. Others question whether regional structures set up to set taxes in NoVA and Hampton Roads – another effort to raise funds – pass constitutional muster.

It also appears that our legislators didn’t do much homework by learning from other states’ experience or asking advice of our own. Michigan and New Jersey each experimented with these same sorts of abusive driver fees. What did they find? Let’s see: It clogged up the courts. It drove up the numbers of unlicensed drivers. It increased the number of police chases, as some of those aforementioned drivers tried to evade arrest knowing the heightened consequences – not a good outcome for anyone.

Some judges started lowering charges to avoid imposing the fees on those who cannot pay them. New Jersey found another disturbing consequence to its 1983 law. Its treasury department reported that about a quarter of the 800,000 licenses suspended in a year resulted from people’s inability to pay the surcharge. Studies by the N.J. Institute for Social Justice and the state revealed that these suspensions were creating a permanent underclass: Though 16 percent of residents live in low-income areas, those areas house almost 40 percent of those whose licenses were suspended for nonpayment of fees and fines. In other words, they really do hurt those at the lower end of the economic scale.

Furthermore, Virginia lawmakers were evidently too busy to check with others. When a Michigan circuit court judge named William C. Buhl e-mailed a warning to all 140 of them, nary a one even replied. And a Republican lawmaker in Michigan, Tom Pearce, told the Washington Post, “Had any lawmaker in Virginia called me, I would have said, ‘Don’t do it. An awful lot of my colleagues would not have voted on these had they understood the unintended consequences.’ ”

Nor were Virginians asked, who might be in the know. “The way this thing works out, it is going to have an absolutely ruinous effect on financially challenged Virginians,” Henry County Commonwealth Attorney Bob Bushnell predicted to the Post. “To my knowledge, no one from the police was consulted. We weren’t consulted. The court clerks weren’t consulted. Had it come up, I think the General Assembly would have been aware of all kinds of concerns from Virginians about the unanticipated downside to this program.”

Oh, by the way, neither objective of raising funds and improving safety was met: Michigan was collecting only 40 cents on every dollar of fines; and New Jersey isn’t sure there has been any improvement in safety.

(Especially not with unlicensed drivers fleeing the cops pursuing them.)

It’s unfortunate the legislature passed, and the governor approved, this mode of funding our transportation needs. There have got to be better ways. Next week, I’ll suggest what might be some.

David Cox is the Democratic Party nominee in the 24th Senate District.


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