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Oct 19, 2008

Motorists who paid abusive driver fines to be offered refunds

The Virginia Supreme Court will send letters this week to some of South Hampton Roads’ worst drivers, offering them refunds for drunken- and reckless-driving fees.

Some were convicted of eluding police during the commission of a crime, while others were caught behind the wheel after lower courts had already revoked their licenses and ordered them not to drive.

At least 4,204 drivers convicted in the five cities as of the end of 2007 will be told the special fees they were once asked to pay are forgiven, according to the state Supreme Court. Those who have already paid hundreds of dollars of those extra fees will be getting refund checks.

The bad drivers are still obligated to pay their original fines for DUI, reckless driving and other offenses. They still have to pay court costs and suffer the burden of higher vehicle insurance because of their offenses.

But they’ll no longer pay the “abusive driver fees” because last month Gov. Timothy M. Kaine was persuaded by a public uproar to sign the repeal of a law that he and the General Assembly had hoped would help finance millions in interstate maintenance projects.

The fees were a small part of a huge 2007 transportation bill and were intended to punish the worst drivers with a new category of fine – a “civil remedial fee” – that would apply to crimes or misdemeanors committed while driving.

Simple traffic infractions such as ignoring a highway sign or failing to yield were not subject to the harsh new fees.

The law ensnared an estimated 58,000 Virginians who were ordered to pay the fees after the law went into effect on July 1, 2007, said Katya Herndon, director of legislative and public relations for the Supreme Court.

About 23,000 of them had begun making payments, she said.

Some of the fees were eye-openers.

Reckless driving brought three fees of $350 each that had to be paid to the Department of Motor Vehicles within 14 months of conviction. A manslaughter conviction arising from driving while intoxicated brought three annual fees of $1,000 each.

But the fees were withdrawn under an onslaught of public anger, driven in part by an online petition signed by an estimated 180,000 Virginians who wanted the law repealed. Many were confused over what offenses were included, while others objected to a provision that limited the fees to Virginia drivers only.

The repeal will force Virginia to repay $7.32 million to bad drivers, said Virginia Controller David Von Moll, of the Department of Accounts. The Virginia Department of Treasury will print the checks, he said. State officials had not yet computed how much of that money will be refunded to drivers in Chesapeake, Norfolk, Portsmouth, Suffolk and Virginia Beach.

“We’re trying our best to make sure that we get a check to the person who paid the fee,” Von Moll said.

The high court did not reveal the names of those convicted, but the data it did provide offered insights into driver behavior in South Hampton Roads.

More tickets were issued in Norfolk for driving on suspended or revoked licenses than in any other South Hampton Roads city, while Virginia Beach led in abusive driver fees for driving while intoxicated, records show.

Mike Goodove, coordinator of southside Virginia Mothers Against Drunk Driving, is discouraged that the fees were eliminated.

Goodove, who lost his 19-year-old brother Jeffrey to a drunken driver, felt remedial fees would have saved lives if given a chance.

“But we’ll never know now,” he said. “I thought they got a lot of people’s attention. When you get people in the pocket, it can affect their decision-making process.”

Goodove said the arguments from opponents that the fines were unfair or overly expensive “pale in comparison to the damages done by drunk drivers on the road.”

The repeal of the abusive driver fees, one of two major portions of the transportation bill of 2007 that were struck down this winter, represented a major setback for lawmakers who have struggled to develop a long-term solution for funding improvements to Virginia’s ailing transportation network.

The fees would have generated about $65 million a year for highway maintenance.

In a separate action, the state high court on Feb. 29 struck down the centerpiece of the transportation bill, saying regional transportation authorities do not have the power to impose taxes on localities. That responsibility rests solely in the hands of elected leaders, the justices said.

The ruling meant that Hampton Roads suddenly had no means to finance six long-sought transportation projects that have thus far proved impossible to build.

Virginia Beach lawyer Sonny Stallings, a former Democratic state senator, derided the civil fees as a “ridiculous attempt that was all smoke and mirrors” designed to hide the need for a statewide tax increase.

Stallings said defense lawyers in Hampton Roads benefited from the law.

“It was going to bolster our business, because the people could not pay,” he said. “If they were convicted and didn’t pay, then they’d lose their license and get a ticket for that. Then they’d be back to us again. It was a lawyer’s moneymaker.”