From the Richmond Times-Dispatch: Big fines for bad drivers tested:
A courtroom assault yesterday on the state’s new fees for traffic offenses fizzled in a cloud of legal briefs and a no-show.
After a Henrico County judge politely said he didn’t have the authority to address the issue, a Henrico man portrayed as a test case to overthrow the civil remedial fees failed to show up for his court appearance.
“Is Anthony Price here? Anthony Price?” defense lawyer Esther Windmueller asked unsuccessfully, scanning a General District courtroom.
General District Judge Archer L. Yeatts III, who had less than an hour earlier refused to rule on the constitutional merits of the fees, rescheduled Price’s case for Aug. 23 and moved on to a reckless driving case.
That left Windmueller suggesting to reporters that she might have to troll the hallways of the Henrico Courts building for a new plaintiff.
The fees, passed by the legislature this year, are intended to generate more than $60 million toward state road funds. So far they have mostly generated fever-pitch public opposition — in large part because out-of-state drivers aren’t subject to the ramped-up fines.
In Richmond traffic court yesterday morning, clerks were marveling at the city’s first instance of a traffic offense that invoked the costly fee structure.
A July 1, noontime stop on Lee Bridge had produced charges of reckless driving and no valid driver’s license for a man court papers identified as Rolando Reyes.
“This was our first one,” said Irving C. Wright, clerk of the Richmond General District Court’s traffic division.
Yesterday, Reyes saw the reckless driving charge reduced to speeding but saw his costs explode.
Instead of being limited to fines and court costs of $317, Reyes had to pay $617 with the addition of the new $300 penalty fee.
And he’ll owe $600 more in coming months in two $300 installments, bringing the total to $1,217.
Had Reyes not had the reckless driving charge reduced, he could have been looking at a total of more than $2,200.
Besides the fact that out-of-state offenders don’t face the extra penalties, critics say, the fees most severely affect low-income traffic offenders, and collection efforts are expected to clog the courts and increase the number of cumbersome cases that involve defense lawyers.
“People will get lawyers hoping they can reduce the charges,” said Henrico General District Court Clerk Lawrence G. Sprader.
The state attorney general’s office argued to Yeatts yesterday that only a higher court can block the fees. Yeatts agreed, saying that a legal theory of seeking to bar the clerk’s office from collecting the fees is improper.
“The judge imposes the fee,” said Yeatts, noting that the judges control the actions of the clerk.
Windmueller said she and co-counsel Craig S. Cooley will likely take the case to the higher court, the county’s Circuit Court, before the end of the week. Traffic cases from the lower court that are subject to the fees are likely to reach circuit courts across the state, also, as the cases are appealed. That would produce scores of opportunities to challenge the law, lawyers familiar with traffic cases said yesterday.
Gov. Timothy M. Kaine has said he favors waiting for the regular session in January to make the fee structure more equitable.
If there’s a problem Governor, why wait?
Again, from the Richmond Times-Dispatch [photo credit: Virginia House of Delegates]: Delegate does U-turn, now opposes high fees:
Del. L. Scott Lingamfelter, R-Prince William, now says he opposes increased fees on bad drivers.
Del. L. Scott Lingamfelter, R-Prince William, who 12 days ago defended unsafe-driver fees, now says they should be repealed.
Lingamfelter declined to say whether the General Assembly should be called back into special session to repeal the bill. That is up to the leadership, he said, but if he came back to Richmond, he would vote for repeal.
Lingamfelter said the bill is “at best complicated.” It also should apply to all drivers, not just Virginians, he added. In addition, he said the fees should be focussed [sic] on curbing bad driving, not on repairing roads.
Twelve days ago, Lingamfelter wrote an op-ed article in which he defended the fees, saying only reckless drivers should be disturbed by them.
The House Democratic Caucus issued a news release yesterday calling Lingamfelter “flip-flop Scott.”
“He saw his support for the abusive-driving tax that exempts out-of-state drivers as hurting him politically, so he put political expediency above principle,” caucus spokesman Mark Bergman said.
A Democrat, William Day of Prince William, is opposing Lingamfelter in November.
Lingamfelter said “real leaders listen, learn and act. They do not name-call, which is what the Democrats do.”
So you admit you’re not a “real leader”? You appear to have listened and learned but where is your act? You’re sitting on your fat ass complaining. Why do you refuse to call for a special session? If there’s a problem Delegate, why wait?
Again, from the Richmond Times-Dispatch: Driver fees about to be tested in court:
An effort to stop Virginia’s new special fees for traffic offenses great and small will get another day in a Henrico County court this morning. Anthony Price has been found.
A legal team had said Tuesday that Price would serve as an important test case to overthrow the fees as unconstitutional. But Price, who lives in Henrico, didn’t show up for court. That left his lawyers, a judge, and a gaggle of media with no case, no ruling and no story.
But Price, located yesterday by a Times-Dispatch reporter, said that he believed his court date was today and he was unaware that a high-powered legal team was ready to defend him.
“Who?” Price said yesterday when asked if he’d been contacted by prominent trial lawyers Craig S. Cooley and Esther Windmueller.
Windmueller said her efforts to contact Price about court dates and her representation likely got lost in the mail.
Price got in touch with the lawyers yesterday, and Windmueller said he would appear at a General District Court hearing this morning.
Price is facing his fifth charge of driving on a suspended license. If convicted today, he faces $750 in penalty fees in addition to fines and court costs. He referred questions about his driving history to his lawyers.
But Price’s conviction, which his lawyers said they would appeal, would set in motion an effort to end the fees statewide.
A Henrico General District Court judge on Tuesday refused to consider legal arguments that the fees were unconstitutional because the motions were brought before the court independent of a defendant being charged with one of the offenses.
But Price does face a traffic charge affected by the new fees. If the judge rules that the fees are unconstitutional, the ruling will likely be appealed by the state.
The special fees went into effect July 1 and are just beginning to reach traffic courts. They apply to dozens of traffic infractions, from manslaughter to a failed turn signal. They have outraged tens of thousands of drivers.
A key constitutional issue centers on the fact that the higher fees do not apply to out-of-state drivers, even when they commit the same driving offenses as a Virginian.
One lawyer said yesterday that she would raise the argument that a person from another country, whether in Virginia illegally or on a visa, should not have to pay the fee, either.
The fees range from $3,000 for more-serious crimes such as vehicular manslaughter and felony unauthorized use of a motor vehicle to $900 for having below-standard tires or failing to wear a seat belt while operating a school bus, according to guidelines published by the state Supreme Court.
For now I give a reprieve for lawyers.