Virginia Senate Passes Repeal of Abusive Driver Fees

By | February 1, 2008

The Virginia Senate this week finally passed its bill to repeal high fees on bad drivers by resolving a partisan impasse over how to rebate fees courts already imposed.

The 39-0 vote marks the first passage by the House or the Senate of a bill that not only repeals the hated surcharges assessed exclusively on Virginians but also refunds fees already collected and excuses payments still due.

“This is a clean repeal. It puts the burden on us,” said Sen. J. Chapman Petersen, D-Fairfax County.

The breakthrough came on an amendment by Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle, R-Virginia Beach, that allows people who have been assessed the fines to petition circuit courts to vacate the fees.

Once an order to pay the fees is voided, the state reimburses the petitioner for the amount already paid, and the Department of Motor Vehicles is prohibited from withholding drivers licenses for failing to pay fees not yet collected.

Passage of the bill was held up last week after Democrats objected to a similar amendment by Stolle, a lawyer and former Courts Committee chairman. The Senate’s Democratic majority favored legislatively mandating the refunds and excusing fees already assessed, but Stolle and the GOP argued that the Constitution prevents the General Assembly from dismissing a judicial order.

After a weekend of closed-door talks and advice from the offices of Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, a Democrat, and Republican Attorney General Bob McDonnell earlier this week, Democrats concluded Stolle was right and agreed that only a court could waive fees already imposed.

“In the discussions over the last couple of days, I think they realized, after talking to the AG’s office and folks from my office that this was a good proposal,” Kaine said Wednesday.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. R. Edward Houck, welcomed the resolution that puts the repeal and the refunds back on a fast track to Gov. Timothy M. Kaine. The bill, now bound for the House, would take effect immediately on Kaine’s signature.

“This bill corrects some of the worst action that I believe this legislature has taken in the 25 years I’ve been here,” Houck said.

The fees were part of the 2007 transportation funding act, the first major cash infusion in 21 years for Virginia’s highways, transit and rails. They were intended to generate nearly $65 million annually from people convicted of egregious driving offenses ranging from reckless driving to vehicular homicide.

Because the money was intended for road maintenance, lawmakers opted to make them civil remedial fees rather than fines, the proceeds of which are reserved exclusively for educational purposes. Because there was no practical or legal way to compel payment from nonresidents, however, the fees applied only to in-state drivers.

When Virginians learned about the nonresident exemption, they were furious. More than 100,000 people signed an online petition demanding its the law’s immediate repeal. Chastened legislators from both parties clamored for a repeal, with Houck at the front of the pack.

Wiping the fees off the books became a political certainty after Kaine said earlier this month that after six months in force, the fees had failed to make Virginia roads any safer and had raised a fraction of their estimated revenue.

While Stolle’s amendment makes it easier for people ordered to pay a fee to seek judicial relief, it doesn’t compel judges to excuse the fines, particularly for people convicted of wantonly putting others at risk of death or injury.

“We’ve given the judges discretion to do it,” Stolle said in an interview. “The judges … feel pressure from the community the same as anybody else. If they have a drunk driver who’s asking for this back, … my guess is most judges are probably going to say no.”

Houck, in an interview, saw it differently.

“I think the vast majority of courts are going to understand that we’re repealing the statute, we’re doing all of this effort to try to get a refund. I believe the court would be hard-pressed to deny a petition. But we cannot tell the courts what to do with their petitions,” Houck said.

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The legislation is SB1

Legislative Information: http://leg1.state.va.us/081/lis.htm

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