The first court challenge to prohibitive fees Virginia is imposing on bad and dangerous drivers was postponed in a Henrico County court Tuesday.
Anthony Price, charged with his fifth violation for driving on a suspended license, was unaware his citation would have become a test case for challenging the new civil remedial fees that can total several thousand dollars and are assessed only on Virginia residents.
“Mr. Price had no idea,” said his court-appointed attorney, Esther Windmueller, who prepared the constitutional challenge on Price’s behalf.
But Price was not present because he did not know that his original Aug. 8 court date had been moved up, she said, and representatives of the commonwealth’s attorney’s office asked for more time, forcing General District Judge Archie Yeatts to postpone the proceeding.
Virginians upset at the size of the fees and outraged that nonresidents don’t pay them have clamored to have the law swiftly struck down by a court or repealed by the General Assembly.
Lawyers and judges across the state had hoped the Henrico hearings might provide the first indication whether the law violates the 14th Amendment guarantee of equal protection under the law. Because nonresidents don’t pay the fees, some defense lawyers say it violates that principle.
Yeatts was disappointed that the case couldn’t proceed and the series of appeals that might settle the issue could commence.
“We may be imposing these statutory fees only to find that the fees are declared unconstitutional,” the judge said in lamenting the postponement of Price’s case to Aug. 23.
“Unless and until someone declares this statute
unconstitutional, we have to enforce it,” Yeatts said.
Earlier Tuesday morning, Yeatts said a higher court would have to decide a request from Windmueller and co-counsel Craig Cooley to for an order that would block General District Courts assessing the fees.
“A Circuit Court judge would be the entity who would issue a writ of prohibition against us, the judges who impose these fees,” Yeatts said.
For weeks, attorneys across the state through e-mail and on Internet forums have discussed how to challenge the law that was passed this year to help endow the General Assembly’s first substantial road funding law in 21 years.
Windmueller said she and Cooley wanted to present Tuesday’s challenge because of the crippling financial burden the fees put on the poor.
“For poor people, a $1,000 fee is an incredible amount of money. That’s $1,000 that can cause someone to get thrown out of their house,” she said.
The law’s abusive driving penalties target specific and egregious traffic offenses committed after July 1. The fees, collected in three yearly installments, range from a total of $750 for driving with a revoked or suspended license to $3,000 for driving-related felonies. They are paid along with some of the nation’s steepest fines.
Also, repeat speeders who accrue at least eight demerit points incur a $100 annual surcharge plus $75 for each point beyond eight. Judges have no power to lower or waive the fees once someone is found guilty. The revenue is earmarked for highway maintenance.
Tuesday’s delays mean that another case is likely to be the first to test the law’s constitutional muster.
In a rare show of bipartisan unity last week, the state’s two most powerful policymakers, Democratic Gov. Timothy M. Kaine and Republican House Speaker William J. Howell, both rejected calls for a special session to reconsider the legislation.