RICHMOND — The first court ruling on whether harsh new fees Virginia imposes on its worst drivers are constitutional is due from a Henrico County judge within a week.
Attorneys for Anthony Price, convicted yesterday of driving on a suspended license for the fifth time, argued that forcing Mr. Price to pay $750 in fees that don't apply to people who live outside Virginia violates the 14th Amendment's guarantee of equal protection under the law.
Judge Archie Yeatts said he will rule on the motion by Thursday. The decision will set off a series of appeals that could reach the state Supreme Court.
The case unwittingly thrust Mr. Price, a shy carpet installer, into the vanguard of an intense statewide furor over "civil remedial fees" that took effect July 1.
Mr. Price declined to comment as he left the courthouse with his grandmother, his ride to and from court.
Virginians outraged that nonresidents are exempt from the fees have clamored for the law's immediate repeal in a special legislative session while defense lawyers work to overturn the law in court. By yesterday, nearly 162,000 people had signed an online petition calling for a repeal of the law.
Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, on his monthly radio program on Richmond's WRVA and the Virginia News Network, continued to oppose calling lawmakers back to Richmond before the regular session in January.
"This was part of a comprehensive transportation package to try and raise money for transportation and you got a lot of citizens out there that say, 'By gosh, don't raise our taxes; find money another way.' Be careful what you wish for," said Mr. Kaine, a Democrat.
The fees were passed this year to help endow the first major transportation funding law in a generation. They range from the fee Mr. Price may have to pay — three annual installments of $250 — to $3,000 over three years for driving-related felonies. Because lawmakers wanted the revenue for highway maintenance, they enacted the surcharges as fees, which Virginia is powerless to collect outside its boundaries. The state can collect fines anywhere, but the state Constitution mandates that revenue from fines be used exclusively for education, not transportation. By limiting the fees to Virginians, the state chose unconstitutionally to apply the law unequally to state residents alone, said one of Mr. Price's attorneys, Craig S. Cooley. "The state cannot discriminate against one class of people," Mr. Cooley told Judge Yeatts. "If we're going to be assessing these fees from dangerous drivers, then we ought to be assessing it from everybody, resident or nonresident." Judge Yeatts pressed Henrico's chief deputy commonwealth's attorney, Duncan P. Reid, on whether a government could penalize some people and excuse others for the same offense. "Let me ask you this," the judge said, looking at Mr. Reid. "Could the legislature pass legislation that would impose these fees only on out-of-state residents?" Mr. Reid said such a consideration is moot because if the court determines there is a rational basis for the law, it survives any challenge brought on 14th Amendment grounds. There is rationale aplenty for the abusive driver penalties, Mr. Reid said, including the goal of discouraging bad driving, the higher cost of out-of-state collections and the supposition that homegrown abusive drivers are a full-time problem unlike bad drivers who are just passing through. "If you're going to collect money from someone in New York or Alaska or Alabama, it's going to cost more than to collect from someone living in Virginia," Mr. Reid said. Judge Yeatts scheduled a hearing for Thursday to deliver his ruling to Mr. Reid, Mr. Cooley and Mr. Price's other court-appointed attorney, Esther Windmueller. The ruling would be binding only in Henrico County. Should Judge Yeatts find the law unconstitutional, the state's automatic expedited appeals would put the case quickly before a Henrico Circuit Court judge and toward a state Supreme Court showdown. Mr. Price pleaded no contest to driving on a suspended license, and Judge Yeatts found him guilty. He fined Mr. Price $200, gave him about a month of jail time and suspended his license for 90 days.