Comprehensive and Informative Commentary on State and Federal Legal Matters
In a turn of events that is particularly embarrassing for the Commonwealth, it has recently been reported that a number of Virginia localities have been ticketing, convicting, and fining motorists for a charge that, though alleged to be illegal, does not actually violate Virginia law.
In this instance, the law in question is Virginia Code § 46.2-707, titled “Operating uninsured motor vehicle without payment of fee; verification of insurance; false evidence of insurance.” As its title suggests, this code makes it unlawful to operate an uninsured motor vehicle without having paid the $500 uninsured motorist fee that is required of those who chose not to purchase auto insurance. The statute also prohibits anyone operating an uninsured vehicle from either providing false insurance information or from failing to provide proof that they have paid the uninsured motorist fee. A conviction under this statute amounts to a Class 3 misdemeanor, the punishment for which is a $500 fine and the immediate suspension of one’s license. Additionally, a conviction for providing false insurance information when driving an uninsured car is labeled a “crime of moral turpitude” and can adversely affect future employment and military service.
What is particularly important about this statute–and what a surprisingly large number of police officers, prosecutors, and judges state-wide seemed to have missed–is that it only applies to drivers who are operating uninsured vehicles. Therefore, in order to properly be charged under this statute, a driver would have to admit that his/her car was uninsured and that he/she failed to pay the uninsured motorist fee. There is no crime if a driver does not have their insurance card on them or simply can not find it, or if they never make the above admissions.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this new revelation though is not the fact that a few police agencies (4 counties worth to be exact) misinterpreted the statute and handed out illegal tickets. As shocking and ultimately disappointing as this is, the issue that is of most concern to me is the fact that more than a few defense attorneys, prosecutors, and judges in the Commonwealth were complicit in the mistake. The discovery that this charge has been wrongfully levied time and again without being properly challenged in court suggests a much larger issue with the justice system here in the Commonwealth. While it might be conceivable to forgive such an error on the part of VA state troopers (thought I would not normally advocate such a move), to be equally as lenient with lawyers in the prosecutors offices or with the judges involved is inappropriate. Just as I am charged with providing my clients with the best defense under the law, these men and women have taken an oath to uphold the laws of our country and to pursue the ends of justices at all times. To think that a mistake as widespread and costly as this could be made on a routine basis is both extremely disappointing and terribly frustrating. Going forward, I hope cases like this will both galvanize the Commonwealth to rectify its mistakes and prompt more citizens to educate themselves as to their basic rights. In doing so, citizens and public servants alike will help to ensure that gross misinterpretations of law such as this do not reoccur.
As was reported this week by Virginia Lawyers Weekly, widespread complaints about “speed traps” have sparked a heated debate between legislators over the division of funds generated by traffic fines in the Commonwealth. Under the current system, local governments have the ability to pass their own traffic laws, as well as to set fines and punishments for the violation of these laws. Though these local laws often parallel or mirror Virginia state statutes, the key difference between the two is one of financial allocation. In cases where the driver is charged with a violation of the state statute, the monies generated in court are allocated to the state. These funds assist with teacher’s retirement funds and school construction, among other things. Considering that thousands of tickets are handed out in Virginia each weekend, the total revenue generated can easily creep into the tens of millions of dollars.
Conversely, if the offending driver is charged under the local version of the law–an option that is up to the discretion of the officer–the funds generated are given to the local government to dispose of as it pleases. Local government officials contend that the funds are still primarily put towards improving education and to funding other local necessities, which helps to keep local real estate and property taxes from rising. However, many argue that allowing officers to charge drivers under the local ordinance ultimately disadvantages citizens because the practice creates an incentive for police departments to set up “speed traps” as a means generating revenue for the locality.
From a legal standpoint though, this debate raises some very interesting questions. Primary among them is the issue of what is best for the client: being charged under the state statute or the local ordinance? On the one hand, advocating for the removal of the local ordinance option (and using state statutes only) would seem beneficial to all in that it would remove the incentive for localities to over-use “speed traps.” Such a move would have the potential to drastically reduce the number of tickets issued in the Commonwealth and to save drivers millions in court costs and fines each year.
On the other hand, a closer, more pragmatic look at the systems reveals that the local ordinance option actually has some significant benefits to Virginia drivers. Chief among these advantages is that while local versions of state statutes can assess fines for traffic violations, the D.M.V. does not assign points to a driver’s record for the violation of local ordinances. To a number of Virginia drivers, this is a much appreciated alternative, since they can simply pay the fine and put the incident behind them without having to worry about accruing points.
While I can see the merit of both sides of this argument, I am very curious to see how the rest of Virginia feels on this issue. Would you prefer to oppose the ordinance option in hopes of reducing “speed traps”, or would you prefer to still have the option of avoiding points if you are charged? The attorneys at Westlake Legal would love to know!