Virginia’s Tax on Traffic Offenses May Hit A Dead End

August 6, 2007

The big weekend tax news in Virginia (besides the tax holiday–see below), was that two judges invalidated Virginia’s new traffic fees as unconstitutional. Last Thursday, in Commonwealth v. Price, Judge Yeatts of the Henrico County District Court held that the fees violated the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. and Virginia Constitutions. Then, on Friday, Judge Jones of the Richmond General District Court ruled identically in Commonwealth v. Fields. The government will probably appeal the rulings.

The two rulings are only binding in those two jurisdictions, but were widely reported amidst the growing opposition to the new charges which went into effect on July 1. In addition to pre-existing criminal penalties and fines for various traffic offenses, guilty drivers have to pay the charges, termed “civil remedial fees,” including $750 for driving on a suspended license, $900 for other misdemeanors, and $1,050 for reckless driving. The Governor and legislature specifically adopted the charges to raise $65 million a year for the state budget and to avoid “raising taxes.” One driving blogger adds everything up, and discovers that driving 15 mph over the speed limit could result in $3,550 in charges and fines.

Virginia residents don’t seem to be buying it. As of last week, a petition to repeal the charges had 171,000 signatures, and no doubt more court challenges are on their way. Opponents of the charges seem to understand that fees are meant to recoup the cost of regulation or charge users for a service, not to generate enormous sums of money. When that is the purpose, it becomes a tax. We discussed this in our brief in the Heatherly lottery case.

Whether a tax on traffic offenses is a good or bad idea is certainly debatable, but Virginia’s government should be honest and label these charges the taxes that they are. And the popular outcry about them may force them to do so sooner rather than later.


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