RICHMOND — AHenrico County prosecutor yesterday argued that the state has the constitutional right to impose stiff "abuser fees" solely against Virginia drivers because those drivers are responsible for most of the wear and tear on local roads.
"The General Assembly could rationally conclude that dangerous Virginia drivers, by virtue of the fact that they constantly drive on Virginia roads, impose a greater burden on the Commonwealth's resources than drivers who are merely passing through the Commonwealth," Chief Deputy Commonwealth's Attorney Duncan P. Reid said in a brief filed in Henrico County Circuit Court.
Mr. Reid argued that it was rational for the General Assembly to assume it would be nearly impossible to collect the fees from out-of-state drivers.
The arguments are part of the state's appeal in the case of Anthony O. Price, the 23-year-old Henrico County man whose fifth conviction for driving on a suspended license — and related $750 civil remedial fee — was suspended last week after a Henrico County General District Court judge ruled the fees unconstitutional.
At a hearing in Henrico County Circuit Court yesterday, Mr. Price's attorneys repeated the strategy that they successfully used in the lower court, arguing that singling out Virginia drivers violated the 14th Amendment guarantee of equal protection under the law.
"There is no rational basis not to assess it against people from out of state," Craig S. Cooley, one of Mr. Price's attorneys, told Circuit Court Judge L.A. Harris Jr.
Judge Harris said he could have a decision in the case next week.
The Henrico ruling last week applied only to drivers convicted in Henrico County and led to a similar ruling a day later in Richmond General District Court, where the judge called the decision a "no-brainer."
The fees, which went into effect July 1, are part of the multibillion-dollar transportation deal that the Republican-controlled General Assembly and Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, a Democrat, carved out earlier this year.
The plan was hailed as a "landmark" agreement between state Democrats and Republicans and within the Republican Party, after state lawmakers tried and failed for years to pass a transportation funding plan.
The Henrico case appears to be the first of its kind. The Washington Times reported last month that officials in four states with similar laws were not aware of any equal protection challenges.
The fees, which range from $750 to $3,000, are designed to generate about $65 million a year for the state's troubled transportation network.
Critics complain that the fees do not apply to out-of-state drivers and call the law an underhanded way for lawmakers to say they avoided a tax increase while delivering a roads package.
"Apparently calling a rose a brick makes it a brick under the abuser fee plan," said Delegate Robert G. Marshall, Prince William County Republican.
More than 170,000 people have signed an online petition calling for the fees to be repealed, and lawmakers have grown increasingly concerned about the law as they campaign for re-election. All 140 seats in the General Assembly are up for election Nov. 6.
On Monday, a group of anti-tax conservatives filed a 13-count constitutional challenge against the transportation package's major revenue sources, including the unelected regional taxing authority in Northern Virginia that voted to impose about $300 million in new taxes and fees for local road and rail projects.
On Tuesday, the Charlottesville Daily Progress reported that former Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III and U.S. Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, Virginia Republican, said the law should be repealed.
Also that day, a U.S. Navy veteran facing a $1,050 fee for driving 20 mph over the speed limit on Interstate 395 in Arlington filed an equal protection challenge in Arlington General District Court. A hearing in that case is scheduled for Monday.
Despite the pressure, Mr. Kaine, backed by Republican leaders, has refused to call a special session to revisit the law.