A new law that went into effect July 1 and calls for the imposition of civil remedial fees on Virginia residents for certain driving offenses has created such an uproar that "we may have to relook at some of these when we get back to the General Assembly next year," Delegate Terry Kilgore, R-Gate City, said Friday.
During its 2007 session, the General Assembly passed House Bill 3202, which was designed to provide additional funds to address various transportation needs in the state. The legislation creates "civil remedial fees" to be assessed against Virginia residents convicted of certain motor vehicle-related or driving crimes. They will also be assessed against juveniles who have been found delinquent because they committed one of these motor vehicle-related or driving felonies or misdemeanors.
The fees are like court costs in that if the fee is applicable to a particular conviction, the court must assess the entire civil remedial fee. Unlike fines and costs, the court cannot suspend or reduce these fees, and they are in addition to other fines, costs and penalties imposed upon conviction.
The fees are imposed in three equal parts, and if the fee applies, the court will order the first part of the fee to be paid to the court following the conviction. The second and third parts of the fee must be paid to the Department of Motor Vehicles within 14 months and again within 26 months. Fees range from $250 to $1,000 for each installment.
That means if a person is convicted of an offense that comes with a $250 fee, by the time all three payments have been shelled out, the person will have paid a total of $750 in addition to other fines and costs. Should the offense carry a $1,000 fee, the total tab will be $3,000, plus fines and costs.
The fees charged by the courts may be included in the installment or deferred payment plans which courts now use for the payment of fines and costs, upon request and approval. These plans will not apply to the second and third parts of the fee, which are to be paid to the DMV.
Kilgore said there is much "misinformation" about the fees, which are designed to target egregious or persistent bad drivers, who make up only about 2 percent of drivers on the road.
"You'd have to get four or five speeding tickets in a year or a DUI for it to apply, and it's mainly aimed at DUIs," said Kilgore.
Nonetheless, he admitted that since the public became aware of the fees, there's been such an uproar that the General Assembly may have to revisit the law.
"We don't want it to cast too wide a net," he said.
The 1st District delegate said the law was the brainchild of Delegate Dave Albo, R-Fairfax, who based it on similar legislation in New Jersey and Texas.
The fees were adopted as part of the overall transportation funding package, he said, and during negotiations of the package nobody brought up the concerns that are now surfacing.
Kilgore said once the legislation was approved and signed, the Virginia Supreme Court compiled a list of offenses to which the law would apply and, "once I saw the list, I knew things need to be looked at again."
This list, he added, is also in part responsible for much of the misinformation being circulated.
In a letter he has drafted to constituents concerned about the fees, Kilgore said the basic premise of the transportation abuser fee is that Virginia's most dangerous drivers should proportionately pay their share for safety improvements to roadways rather than placing the bulk of the burden on the general public. The possibility of being assessed these fees is meant to serve as a deterrent to unsafe driving since the fees are targeting habitual offenders and extremely reckless drivers.
"Those who obey the law or even get the occasional ticket won't be affected," Kilgore wrote. "The Kaine administration estimates that only 2.5 percent of Virginia drivers would have been eligible for these fees over the last several years. Instead of charging all Virginians hundreds of dollars extra each year in taxes while property tax bills and gasoline prices are rising, legislators wanted to focus on charging those who use our roadways most - with a special emphasis on those who have demonstrated a repeated disregard for the rules of our roads.
"These abuser fees are assessed in two ways. First, they are assessed on certain traffic offenses. A person will pay an annual fee for three years based on the seriousness of the offense. In cases like these, the fee only applies to the most dangerous motor vehicle-related or driving felonies and misdemeanors that could be punishable by jail time, such as DUI driving suspended. This is set up to discourage and penalize dangerous drivers.
"The second way the fees would kick in is if a person has 8 negative demerit points on their license. When that threshold is reached - the equivalent of four major tickets in one year - the fee will be assessed at $100 and another $75 for each additional negative point. Every Virginia driver starts off with 0 points, and gets 1 positive point each year for good driving up to 5 positive points. You also can take a safe driving course every two years and add 5 positive points back. In short, you would have to be a really bad driver - repeatedly - before you would be subject to the ‘abuser fee.'"
And, if you are among the minority of Virginia drivers who have accrued a negative point balance prior to this bill's July 1 enactment date, those points don't count toward your eligibility for this fee.
"The abuser fee is best described as a variable registration fee imposed by the commonwealth based upon a person's driving record as a condition for holding a driver's license. Just as Virginia citizens do not pay registration fees to New York regardless of our behavior on their roads, New Yorkers can't be charged a registration fee by Virginia. Since an out-of-state person is not registered in Virginia, they cannot be charged a registration fee by the commonwealth."
Some have argued that the fees should be charged on everyone, both residents and non-residents. This could be done if the bill was rewritten as a criminal fine bill, but because of a provision in the Virginia Constitution, all fines have to go the Literary Fund for school construction. In order for the revenue to go where it was needed - to improve transportation - the funds collected had to be charged like a registration fee.
"Other states, such as Texas and New Jersey, have implemented these fees and seen a significant reduction in demerit points accrued by their licensed drivers. The fees are a proven way to cut back on aggressive and reckless driving, which benefits all road users. I agree with Governor Kaine's desire that ‘hopefully the prospect of stiff fines will make people drive right.' Promoting safety and reducing fatalities and accidents are the most important aspects of this legislation.
"The bottom line is if you do not break Virginia's traffic laws or even if you just make the occasional traffic mistake, you will not be subjected to the ‘abuser fees.' In fact, the overwhelming majority of Virginia's drivers - more than 97 percent - will not have to pay these higher fees," Kilgore said.