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Front Royal May Reject Va. Fees for 'Abusive Drivers'

Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 21, 2007; Page B01

RICHMOND, July 20 -- The small town of Front Royal, in the foothills of the Shenandoahs, is taking on what town leaders and many others consider to be the scourge of Virginia.

The council is scheduled to vote Monday on a resolution that would prevent its police officers from enforcing Virginia's "abusive driving" fees.

If it's approved, the measure, sponsored by council member Thomas Sayre (R), could set up a legal fight over whether Virginia's local jurisdictions have to participate in the state effort to collect the fees to help pay for transportation improvements.

Since the fees went into effect July 1, more than 130,000 people have signed an online petition demanding that legislators repeal the measures. The fees range from $900 to $3,000 and apply to driving infractions that rise to the felony or misdemeanor level.

But the fees have become so unpopular that some Front Royal council members don't want their 10-member police force to be associated with them.

For decades, Virginia municipalities have had the right to make traffic offenses a local, instead of a state, charge. Front Royal, like many small towns, has embraced the authority as a way to collect revenue from traffic offenses.

Sayre says the fees are unfair to the town's 14,000 residents and motorists who pass through Front Royal's two-lane highways.

"I am in court daily, and I see people all the time who cannot afford to pay normal court costs and fines, so they are not going to be able to afford this," said Sayre, a lawyer who also is vice chairman of the Warren County Republican Party. "The governor and the legislature may not be willing to eliminate the civil remedial fines, but we are. Not in our town."

Under the Front Royal proposal, people cited for driving under the influence would still be subject to the state fees. But those charged with certain lesser offenses, such as reckless driving or driving without a license, would not have to pay. The resolution would apply only to tickets written by the Front Royal police. Anyone charged by the Warren County sheriff or the Virginia State Police, which do not come under town control, would still have to pay.

House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith (R-Salem) noted that the recently approved transportation bill, which imposed the fees, says the law applies to state drunken driving and reckless driving ordinances as well as "substantially similar local ordinances." The fees are paid out over three years, so someone charged with a crime that warrants a fee, such as driving 20 mph over the speed limit or recklessly causing an accident, will pay the District Court the first year. The Department of Motor Vehicles collects the fees the second and third years.

"The town may not collect it, but they are going to have to notify DMV, and DMV will collect it," Griffith said.

But Sayre says Front Royal officials would urge local clerks of court to not cooperate with the DMV.

"By amending our town code, the court clerks are not going to collect the fee initially, so there will be nothing to put into [the DMV] computer," Sayre said.

News of the town resolution was first reported yesterday by the Warren County Report.

Council member Bret Hrbek, a Republican, predicts the measure will pass the six-member council.

"This law is a tax increase to help fund road projects, which may be good projects, but if we are going to have a tax increase, we should have a tax increase. We shouldn't use fines to do it," Hrbek said. "This is one way for us to make a stand to tell the General Assembly and the governor we are not going to participate in robbing our citizens to pay for projects when they are not going to be honest enough to just raise taxes."

On Thursday, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) and House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) held a news conference to defend the fees, saying they are vital to improving highway safety and raising $65 million annually to fund transportation.

The fees were designed as a partial substitute for a statewide tax increase, which the Republican-controlled House of Delegates opposed.

Kaine and Howell noted that the fees do not apply to common traffic infractions, such as running a red light, so most motorists do not have to worry about the fees. They have the support of AAA and Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

"This really goes for serious driving offenses," Kaine said. "We have a significant problem with unsafe drivers in Virginia."

A Kaine spokesman declined to comment Friday on Sayre's bill, referring all questions to Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell (R).

J. Tucker Martin, a McDonnell spokesman, said his office is confident Front Royal cannot opt out of the abusive-driving fees.

"While we have not seen the specifics of the proposal, we do not believe a locality can opt out of a statewide provision," Martin said.

Mark Flynn, director of legal services for the Virginia Municipal League, said his organization plans to study the matter.

Even if Front Royal ultimately loses in court, Town Attorney Tom Robinette says the fight will have been worth it.

"I think by passing this, we are telling them we don't want this in our town code, which is something we are authorized to say," Robinette said. "We are telling them what we think of" their fees.

Staff writers Arianne Aryanpur, Christy Goodman and Tom Jackman contributed to this report.