- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 25, 2007

A Henrico County General District Court judge yesterday postponed a case that could determine whether singling out Virginia drivers in the state’s new “abuser fee” program violates the U.S. Constitution.

Judge Archer Yeatts shelved until Aug. 23 a court-appointed attorney’s motion to dismiss the case against Anthony Price, who faced his fifth charge for driving on a suspended license, saying the constitutional questions will be considered when Mr. Price is present. The judge also said the proper venue for trying to block court clerks from collecting the fees is circuit court.

Mr. Price’s attorney, Esther Windmueller, said that Judge Yeatts in making his decision said he was “very frustrated” that a court had not had the opportunity to address looming legal questions.

“He said on behalf of all the judges, ‘We want to rule on this,’ ” she said.

The challenge yesterday is the latest in a series since the Republican-controlled General Assembly and Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, a Democrat, agreed to the fees as part of a multibillion-dollar transportation deal.

Since the fees kicked in July 1, more than 155,000 people have signed an online petition calling for them to be repealed, a civil liberties group has threatened a lawsuit, the constitutionality of a regional taxing authority in Northern Virginia has been questioned, and the small town of Front Royal has considered ignoring most of the fees.

“These abuser fees fall short of what I would deem as common ordinary horse sense,” said Senate Finance Chairman John H. Chichester, Stafford County Republican.

The fees do not apply to out-of-state drivers.

Mr. Kaine and Republican leaders have been on damage control in recent weeks, saying that less than 2 percent of the state’s licensed drivers will face the new fees and that the law will raise much-needed money for roads and improve public safety.

But in other states where similar fees have been imposed, the effect on state coffers and road safety has been uneven.

Officials in Michigan, New York, New Jersey and Texas told The Washington Times they hoped the fees would increase safety but that there is little evidence suggesting they do so.

“The answer is not that clear-cut,” said Cathleen Lewis, a spokeswoman with the New Jersey Department of Motor Vehicles. “And the reason is: There was not a study done specific to the impact of the surcharges. What we can say is, the number of [demerit] point violations have gone down, but we cannot contribute that directly to the fees.”

Tom Vinger, a Texas Department of Public Safety spokesman, said the agency has no “concrete data” and that officials now plan to do a study.

Ken Brown, New York Department of Motor Vehicles spokesman, said, “I don’t think we have enough data available that would lead to any conclusion.”

Still, state House Speaker William J. Howell recently wrote an editorial on his Web site titled “Highway Hyperbole” that reads: “These fees have a proven track record of increasing road safety and supplementing transportation revenues. A cursory check of the facts would have found that abuser fees have worked successfully in New Jersey, where the number of demerit points drivers have accrued for dangerous driving has fallen since that state’s fees were introduced.”

A Virginia official acknowledged the statement is more rhetoric than reality.

“There have been assertions that there have been improvements in New Jersey. We have been unable to find studies that substantiate that,” Secretary of Transportation Pierce R. Homer said at a press conference last week that Mr. Kaine and Mr. Howell, Stafford Republican, used primarily to talk about the law’s safety benefits.

Mr. Kaine, backed by Republican leaders, continues to reject calling a special legislative session to revisit the fees.

Other states with similar laws also have learned that depending on bad drivers to pay stiff fees leads to unpredictable revenue streams.

Michigan state Rep. Tom Pearce, a Republican, said the state collects about 60 percent of the fees. “So we have an awful lot of people driving without a license or not driving at all,” he said.

Since the Texas Legislature started in September 2004 to impose the annual surcharges under its “Driver Responsibility Law,” the state has only collected $275 million of the $852 million it has billed, Mr. Vinger said.

In addition, The Times reported last year a study released by a New Jersey task force showed low-income motorists are hit hardest by the state program. The study also stated license suspensions often have “serious, albeit unintended” consequences, including motorists losing their jobs and driving without a license or insurance.

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