8/5/2007Virginia Ticket Tax Loses Once Again
Attempt by the Virginia legislature to impose a tax on speeding tickets loses a second court challenge in the capital city of Richmond.
Virginia's civil remedial fee imposed on both serious and minor traffic violations lost a second court challenge Friday. In the state legislature's own backyard, Richmond General District Court Judge Thomas O. Jones took inspiration from the ruling of his Henrico County colleague (view ruling) and declared the speeding ticket tax a violation of the Constitution's equal protection provisions.
Last month, Virginia began imposing new fees of between $100 and $3000 on motorists convicted of certain offenses. A driver collecting two ordinary speeding citations would pay $100 a year for as long as the points remained on his record. Another driver found guilty of driving more than 15 MPH over the limit in a 65 zone would face a mandatory $1050 fee in addition to existing penalties of up to $2500 and a year in jail (view fee details).
Like the Henrico ruling, the Richmond court's decision has no effect beyond Virginia's capital city unless a higher court hears an appeal and rules on the matter. With state courts divided into 31 separate circuits, it is possible that several general district courts could rule before an appeal reaches a higher court with statewide jurisdiction.
The case at hand began when City of Richmond Police Officer Phillip J. Caudery pulled over local resident Joseph C. Fields on July 7. Caudery accused Fields of reckless driving using the vague, catch-all provision of the Virginia Code:
"Irrespective of the maximum speeds permitted by law, any person who drives a vehicle on any highway recklessly or at a speed or in a manner so as to endanger the life, limb, or property of any person shall be guilty of reckless driving." (Section 46.2-852)
Fields faced a $2500 fine and a year imprisonment for the charge, but Judge Jones felt that though he was guilty, his offense merited a fine of just $167. After the conviction, Judge Jones was able to rule on a motion challenging the mandatory civil remedial fee of $1050 that would have been imposed. This was not the first time Fields, whom the state wished to declare a "habitual offender" or "abusive driver," had a run in with the law. Last September Fields admitted to driving without wearing a seatbelt. He paid a $25 fine.
Although the leadership of the General Assembly and Governor Tim Kaine (D) are pressing to expand the fees to cover out-of-state drivers to avoid further legal challenges, it may be impossible to do so without breaking other provisions of the state constitution. Kaine explained on WTOP radio on July 31 that it is impossible to include out-of-state drivers in the transportation funding scheme.
"The original bill when it was put together, the sponsor said, look, if we want to use this abuser fee mechanism and then use the revenues for transportation, there's no real way we could include out-of-staters," Kaine said. "If you were just to increase the ticket prices, for example, you could include out-of-staters in that, but that money all goes by law into the literary fund which is for school construction."