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Veteran challenges ‘abuser fee’

A U.S. Navy veteran with a clean driving record who faces a $1,050 civil remedial fee after he was cited for driving 20 mph over the speed limit in Arlington sued the state of Virginia yesterday over its "abuser fee" program.

Kyle M. Courtnall, a lawyer representing Charles "Chaz" Mason, filed a motion in Arlington General District Court to declare the civil remedial fees, which range from $750 to $3,000, unconstitutional because they don't apply to out-of-state drivers. The fees went into effect July 1.

Mr. Mason's motion mirrors successful challenges heard last week in courts in Henrico County and Richmond. The judges ruled in two cases that the fees violated the 14th Amendment guarantee of equal protection under the law because the state has no rational basis for making "the distinction between resident and nonresident 'dangerous drivers.' "

The rulings apply only to drivers convicted in Richmond and Henrico County, where a circuit court today is scheduled to consider the state's appeal in one of the cases.

In the Northern Virginia case, Mr. Mason, in full uniform, was driving on Interstate 395 to reserve duty at the Pentagon July 8 when he was stopped and ticketed for driving 75 mph in a 55 mph zone.

If convicted, Mr. Mason, who has no criminal record, faces a $1,050 civil remedial fee for reckless driving.

Mr. Courtnall's motion is scheduled to be heard Monday in Arlington General District Court.

The new fees are part of the multibillion-dollar transportation package that the Republican-controlled General Assembly and Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, a Democrat, hammered out earlier this year.

The fees and the state's transportation package have come under intense scrutiny in recent weeks.

A group of anti-tax conservatives on Monday filed a 13-count constitutional challenge against the transportation package's major revenue sources, including the driver fees.

More than 170,000 people have signed an online petition calling for repeal of the law. The town of Front Royal is considering ignoring the fees, and many lawmakers are growing increasingly frustrated with Mr. Kaine's refusal to call a special session to revise or repeal the law.

Mr. Kaine, backed by Republican leaders, said leaders will monitor the law in the coming months and consider revisions when the General Assembly convenes in January.

Lawmakers said the legal challenges will embroil the campaign season. All 140 seats in the General Assembly are up for election on Nov. 6.

Mr. Courtnall said Mr. Mason's case epitomizes the shortcomings of the new law, which his office jokingly calls "the lawyer full employment act."

While the driver in the Henrico case— Anthony O. Price — had been convicted of driving on a suspended license for the fifth time, Mr. Mason "comes straight out of central casting with a perfect driving record," Mr. Courtnall said.

"It's a similar motion to what they filed in Henrico, but the difference to me is the guy I got is more sympathetic to me than the guy they had in Henrico," he said.

Delegate David B. Albo, Fairfax County Republican, said yesterday that it sounds like Mr. Courtnall is trying to "make a name for himself" because if he waited for the Aug. 31 traffic hearing, the odds of a judge convicting Mr. Mason of reckless drivingare "zero point zero zero."

"There is not a single person in Virginia with a good driving record who gets charged with a 75 in a 55 [mph zone] who ever gets convicted of [reckless driving]," Mr. Albo said. "The judge will always lower it to improper driving."

Mr. Courtnall said Mr. Albo is ignoring the real issue: the law's constitutionality.

"Whether a judge would find Mr. Mason guilty or not is not the point," Mr. Courtnall responded in an e-mail to The Washington Times. "Mr. Albo helped draft/sponsor the law, so of course he is going to defend it."

House Democratic Caucus Leader Brian J. Moran of Alexandria agreed that the charge against Mr. Mason likely would be reduced in traffic court, but said this case shows that the criminal justice system should be used to punish bad behavior, not to collect money for road and rail projects.

"While the proponents of this law claim that this is only for the worst of the worst drivers, its implementation shows just how draconian these fees really are," Mr. Moran said.

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