HOLMBERG: Fine and civil penalty for reckless driving in Chesterfield?

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*Editor’s note. This is Mark Holmberg’s report and commentary.

CHESTERFIELD, Va. (WTVR) Chesterfield County is using an old state law to hit drunk or reckless drivers with a civil penalty on top of the usual court fines.

Is it legal? And is it right?

“My son went to court in reference to a speeding ticket,” said Marla Crawford of Richmond, whose son works at the Norfolk shipyard. “The court imposed a fine on him. The fine was paid. And a few months later . . . “

Her son was served with a civil claim – a “warrant in debt” from the county for $397 dollars - almost seven months after paying $190 in fines and court costs for his reckless driving.

The county does this all the time.

“We take out warrants in debt on approximately 50 to 60 convictions every month,” said Assistant County Attorney Tara A. McGee.

These civil penalties are built on a 10-year-old state law designed to make drunk or reckless drivers to pay for the messes they made.

But Crawford’s son didn’t cause make a mess.

“This was just a regular traffic stop,” she said. “According to the language in the law, as I understand it, he had to have been (in) an accident or some unforeseen incident, possibly property damage or some type of emergency fee. And none of that occurred. He was just given a speeding ticket.”

CBS 6 legal analyst Todd Stone said the state law is not the best-written piece of code. “The law is pretty inconsistent. And it’s not very clear in certain places as to what exactly they are trying to accomplish.”

McGee disagrees. The law applies to drunken and reckless driving cases even if there hasn’t been an accident. “It’s clear from the state law and the county ordinance that you can do it simply upon the conviction of having been issued a traffic ticket.”

Chesterfield has amended its county code 13-71 a couple of times, massaging the wording enough to make this double penalty legal, they believe.

Was that the intent of the law was when state lawmakers passed it?

“I don’t ever predict what the General Assembly’s intent was when they passed it,” McGee said.

Stone said, “I think what the intent of this was to look at cases like that where the localities send in their fire and rescue personnel to an accident scene and then they get some  of this money back by assessing the penalty directly to the driver. You shouldn’t be able to assess a fee like this in the case of a regular traffic stop.”

Marla Crawford says it seems to her like “double jeopardy and them taking what they want.”

McGee said only about 25 percent of those served with these warrants in debt actually pay them. Those who don’t pay lose their licenses, if they still had them.

Speaking of the intent of the General Assembly, it is doubtful that lawmakers intended hundreds of people lose their ability to drive to work so localities can rake in some extra cash.

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