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Chesterfield hits drunken drivers with a second whack

Some wayward motorists are getting hit with a double whammy after conviction in traffic court. Local governments, including Chesterfield County, are taking the offenders into civil court to demand reimbursement for the cost of an officer stopping them and writing the ticket.

In many cases, the “cost” is a fixed fee of $350, but the number can rise to near $400 if the case is filed in court.

Since 1994, state law has allowed localities to collect accident response costs from people convicted of DUI. As expanded over the years, Virginia Code § 15.2-1716 permits local ordinances that provide for restitution of “reasonable expenses” incurred by the government caused by drunken driving, reckless driving, driving suspended or revoked, or leaving the scene of an accident.

Originally, the law appeared primarily for recovery of costs of an accident or other “incident” caused by the traffic offense. Some localities sought to recover basic traffic officer expenses, but a 2004 opinion from then-Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore said the law was not designed to allow collection of expenses for a routine traffic stop.

The General Assembly removed that limitation in 2009 with a bill sponsored by Del. Sal R. Iaquinto, R-Virginia Beach. The change expressly provided for restitution of expenses incurred by a locality “when issuing any related arrest warrant or summons.”

Even before that amendment, Chesterfield County was collecting traffic stop expenses from convicted motorists in civil court, according to assistant county attorney Tara A. McGee. She said lawyers from her office persuaded the local general district judges the attorney general’s view of the law was too restrictive.

The result is many offenders leaving traffic court with convictions and hefty fines are surprised to find the local government wants even more money from them, with the threat of license suspension if they fail to pay.

The state statute allows a flat fee of $350 to represent “reasonable expenses,” if the locality wants to avoid proving a minute-by-minute accounting of actual costs. There is a $1,000 cap.

McGee explained the costs can mount if an offender fails to pay an initial county invoice. If the government has to file a civil action to collect, it will tack on a 10-percent late fee. Service outside the county adds another $12.

McGee said her office has to handle a lot of disgruntled callers, upset because they didn’t expect the second wallet hit. She said the county prepared fliers warning of the civil liability, but the clerk’s office was too busy to hand them out.

“Our office staff does an excellent job of trying to explain,” McGee said.

McGee said other localities must be using the law, since requests for amendments to the enabling statute have come from all around the state. She said she has explained the county’s process to officials from a number of other jurisdictions.

McGee said the county files warrants in debt against 50 to 60 traffic offenders a month, but the collection rate at the courthouse is only about 25 percent. Those who ignore the civil suits, or fail to pay up, can lose their drivers’ licenses.

That’s not much of a threat for someone whose license was yanked by the traffic court judge. “I have often met with people who have said, ‘I’ve lost my license anyway,’” McGee said.

McGee said the information on Chesterfield traffic defendants, with addresses, is provided as a database from the Supreme Court of Virginia.

She said even though the enabling statute allows collection from those convicted of driving without a valid license, county leaders decided not to pursue those cases. The problem, she said, was addresses provided by people without driver’s licenses were often inaccurate. The collection rate for those cases was only about 10 percent.

McGee said she understands the restitution money from traffic offenders is funneled to public safety purposes in Chesterfield County. “We want our citizens to believe that when we have a source of revenue available to us without taxes, we will take advantage of it,” she said.

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