8/2/2007Virginia District Court Judge Strikes Down Ticket Tax
A Virginia general district court judge struck down as unconstitutional the fees that raised the maximum punishment for speeding to $3550.
In the first case of its kind, a Henrico County General District Court judge today struck down as unconstitutional Virginia's controversial speeding ticket tax that had been in effect since July 1. Judge Archer L. Yeatts, III ruled that the civil remedial fees violated the equal protection clause by applying additional, mandatory fines of up to $3000 on Virginia drivers, but not out-of-state drivers who may have committed the same driving violation (fee description).
"A 'dangerous' driver is a 'dangerous' driver, whether he or she is a life-long resident of Virginia or simply passing through on his or her way to another state or county," Judge Yeatts wrote. "The court rejects the speculations postulated by the commonwealth, and mindful of its obligation to do so, has exhausted its speculation quotient in trying to conceive of any others that would be a rational basis for the distinction between resident and non-resident 'dangerous drivers.'"
The state's legislative leaders quickly issued statements indicating surprise and underscoring their resolve not just to maintain the "abuser fees" but to expand them to generate additional revenue from out-of-state drivers. The move comes despite the plea of just under four percent of the state's active, registered voters who have signed a petition demanding the law's unconditional repeal (view petition).
"Whether the courts find the law constitutional or not, as a policy matter I am committed to addressing the concerns Virginians have raised about this law, including its application to out-of-state drivers," said Governor Tim Kaine (D).
Virginia Speaker William J. Howell (R) likewise stood by the fees, despite growing discontent among members of the House of Delegates. (View a list of delegates calling for repeal of the fees.)
"I am surprised by today's holding in the Henrico County District Court," Howell said. "Prior to its passage by overwhelming bipartisan majorities of the legislature on April 4 of this year, the legislation was thoroughly and painstakingly reviewed by both the Kaine Administration and the Office of the Attorney General, among other legal experts."
Today's court decision only applies to motorists stopped in Henrico County. Other jurisdictions will continue to collect the fees unless an appeals court or the state supreme court issues a ruling reaching the same conclusion as Judge Yeatts. If other states serve as a guide, the civil remedial fees will face a difficult challenge. A car window tinting law in Georgia, like Virginia's law, only applied penalties to in-state drivers. That state's supreme court ruled the concept unconstitutional in 2004.
"The distinction drawn by the statute violates the constitutional guarantee of equal protection of the laws because it distinguishes between similarly situated persons, drivers of cars registered in Georgia, on a basis which bears no reasonable relation to the purpose of the statute," the Georgia court wrote.
The full text of the ruling is available in a 230k PDF file at the source link below.