Virginia Drivers Protest New Laws That Apply Only to Residents

Mayor Susan P. Irving has no quarrel with Virginia forcing its worst drivers to pay more money — thousands of dollars in some cases.

She is a former ambulance medic who's handled the carnage speeding has wrought on U.S. 460, the busy, narrow four-lane conduit linking small farm towns like hers along the way to the Atlantic beaches an hour's drive east.

But she can't abide that "civil remedial fees" that took effect Sunday apply only to Virginians, not the out-of-state motorists who throttle into her town.

On talk radio, blogs and in letters to the editor, Virginians like her are sounding off about a burden only they bear while nonresident bad drivers are exempt.

"That's all you hear everywhere you go, people talking about how unfair it is and what can be done about it," Irving said.

The fees are part of Virginia's first major transportation funding overhaul in 21 years. Legislators estimate they could add about $62 million annually to the state's highway maintenance fund.

The 706,000 summonses issued and arrests made by Virginia State Police for traffic offenses in 2006 are only a fraction of the total number of citations issued statewide. They include some of the offenses targeted by hefty new fees: About 7,018 were for driving under the influence, 100,592 were for reckless driving, 212,426 were for speeding and 58,092 were for driving on a lapsed, suspended or revoked license.

Reckless or drunken driving fines routinely run into several hundred dollars — and often more — depending on the driver's speed and behavior behind the wheel, as well as the jurisdiction and the driver's previous record of offenses. Convictions sometimes bring jail time and revoked licenses.

Abusive driver fees are added to that and would boost, for example, the cost of a reckless driving conviction by $1,050, payable in three annual installments. The fees also kick in when drivers accumulate eight or more demerit points through other violations such as speeding.

Because they are administrative fees collected by DMV, courts can't waive or reduce them. The agency suspends the licenses of Virginians who don't pay, so out-of-state drivers are not affected.

The backlash in Virginia has grown the past two weeks. Unhappy callers pressed Gov. Timothy M. Kaine about it on his two monthly radio shows last week, prompting the Democratic governor to say legislators might have to address the issue.

"I can understand that feeling," Kaine told a group of reporters later. "But a majority of people believe `I don't do those offenses."'

House Republican Leader H. Morgan Griffith also said the provision would get another look.

Already, defense lawyers are preparing a court challenge.

"Certainly that will be challenged. The members of the Virginia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers are gearing up for it and model briefs and motions are already circulating," said Craig Sampson, a Richmond attorney.

While the concepts are still "in the brainstorming stage," Sampson said, one theory says that fees exclusive to Virginians violate the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of equal protection under the law.

But University of Richmond constitutional law professor Carl Tobias said the law might be upheld because courts often afford the state discretion on civil or administrative fees, particularly when they are imposed for public safety.

Still, he said, "I think that it sounds like there are some creative arguments that might persuade a judge."

New Jersey's system of abusive driver surcharges dating to the 1980s was the model for Virginia's law. But in New Jersey, the fines apply to everyone, and officials there have garnisheed wages and attached property liens to collect from nonresident offenders, said Mike Horan of the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission.

Virginia can't do it that way because money from fines can't be used for roads. The state Constitution directs fines to public school construction and teacher retirement.

"We could charge everybody an extra 100 bucks a year or we could charge abusive drivers, the people who abuse the roads," said Del. David Albo, R-Fairfax, one of the authors of the provision and a defense lawyer whose practice includes traffic cases.

That doesn't placate people in Waverly, where police keep a close watch on the average 13,000 vehicles a day that course through the town of 3,000 people on U.S. 460.

"You have a lot of out-of-state traffic come through here," said Patricia Cisco, who works downtown at Ann's Dress Shop.

"I don't think people resent them (abuser fees). They do resent that people from out of state don't have to pay," she said.