NEWS- 'Sticker shock': New traffic laws promise fat fines
Think traffic tickets take a bite out of your bank account? Starting July 1, they just might swallow it whole– but only if you're a Virginia resident. That's the result of a new state law that tacks hefty civil fees on already-existing traffic fines for certain driving infractions committed by Virginia drivers on Virginia roads.
For example, if you're caught reckless driving (going 20 mph over the speed limit), you'll pay the standard fine– usually $200. But now you'll also add an additional $1,050 to the Commonwealth's coffers. First time drunk driving used to carry a $300 price tag; add $2,500 to that starting July 1.
What has some people really screaming: out-of-state drivers nabbed while passing through won't have to pay anything beyond the traditional fines, because the fees, legislators claim, are essentially a tax applicable only to residents.
The bill's sponsors, Fairfax Republican Senators David Albo and Thomas Rust, believe the fees– part of the massive Transportation Bill– are a clever way to pay the state's transportation expenses at the same time they try to slow people down and stop dangerous road behavior.
"It's a totally voluntary charge," says Albo. "If you don't break the law, you don't pay anything."
Albo and Rust believe the fees will net the state between $65 and $120 million. Smaller speeding tickets and other minor infractions won't be assessed the additional fees, which can be paid over three years in annual installments, with the first one due at the time of conviction.
But critics say the new law will be overly burdensome for poor drivers and may clog courthouses with offenders fighting the charges to avoid the fees.
"It's a huge hardship on people," says defense attorney David Heilburg, who predicts "sticker shock" for many court-bound drivers in the near future. And Heilburg isn't the only local lawyer worried about the consequences.
"It's going to be incredibly bad," says attorney Ford Childress, who, like Heilburg, predicts increased numbers of people will drive on suspended licenses when they're unable to pay the sometimes whopping amounts required to get their licenses reinstated.
Albo defends the fees and bristles at the idea that the fees will unfairly target those of lower socioeconomic status.
"Do people think that poor people drive illegally?" he asks.
Democratic Senator Creigh Deeds, who voted to pass the Transportation Bill but dislikes the fees, doesn't shy away from answering that rhetorical question.
"Many people with serious driving problems," says Deeds, "have serious economic problems as well." That can include substance abuse issues.
David Dutcher is executive director of James River ASAP, which provides classes that people convicted of DUI, underage drinking, and certain marijuana possession charges are required to take. He worries that heaping fees on top of fines will make it harder for his organization– which relies on the $300 tuition paid by 1,500 clients annually– to collect money for the court-ordered services and may face its own financial difficulties. And even local governments may suffer if judges– who have no discretion over the new civil fees– choose to help drivers by dropping the other fines, which typically go to localities.
Heilburg says there's a better way to pay for new roads.
"Tax is a dirty word," he says, "and that's what this is all about." Adding a five- or 10-cent-per-gallon tax to gasoline, he believes, is a better way to raise money.
To this suggestion, Albo scoffs.
"Gas tax?" he asks. "Yeah, like that has a possibility of ever being passed."
Deeds points out that if the fees do act as a dangerous driving deterrent, they won't raise the predicted funds for roads. "No long term gain was made" by adding the fees, he says.
Childress and Heilberg believe the new fees will be challenged soon after they go into effect, and indeed Fairfax attorney Michael S. Davis says in a June 23 article in the Washington Post that he's already planning a legal challenge based on the fact that only Virginia residents will be slapped with the fines– something he says violates "equal protection" under the U.S. Constitution. Any challenge to the law, however, will likely take years to work through the system.
Unfortunately for Charlottesville drivers, the new state fees aren't the only expensive news. As reported in last week's Hook, Charlottesville City Council recently voted to add a $200 surcharge for speeding on three city roads: Old Lynchburg Road, Altavista Avenue between Monticello and Avon streets, and Avon Street from the city line to Monticello Avenue.
Mayor David Brown says he and fellow councilors were aware of the new state legislation, and he points out that the city surcharge, which takes effect September 1, will be a six-month trial and that judges will have discretion to levy or remove the fees depending on circumstances.
He admits he has some concern about the fairness of the city's new fees, but he says he's far more concerned about the state legislation.
"You're taking people who aren't in a position to complain and making them pay," says Brown. "It's a regressive approach to paying for roads, and I think it's going to cause big problems."