Friday, July 20, 2007

Tax collectors with guns

A few years back, I was driving home from Arlington, Virginia at around 5:30 in the afternoon. I got on I-395 near the then battle-scarred Pentagon, and anyone who does that drive on a regular basis can tell you about the soul-crushing traffic there at that time of day.

Within minutes of entering that bumper-to-bumper traffic, my car overheated, and I moved as quickly as I could into the breakdown lane and stopped my car. After shutting off the engine, I looked up and saw a Virginia state trooper, blue lights flashing, in my rearview mirror. I thought, “Wow…that’s got to be record time for a cop to be coming to the aid of a motorist in distress.” Well, as it would turn out, this officer was not there for my benefit. He told me I had been—if you can believe this—illegally driving on the shoulder.

Upon being told this, I turned the key and directed the friendly trooper’s attention to my temperature gauge, the needle of which was restrained only by the peg at the top. He nodded, walked back to his cruiser, and returned a few minutes later...with a summons to appear in court for illegally driving on the shoulder.

I invited the trooper to once again examine my temperature gauge and acknowledge to me verbally that he did, in fact, see that it was pegged; in the red zone; maxed out and otherwise not looking very healthy. I told him that this was to ensure that when I appeared in court and pleaded not guilty, he would be perjuring himself should he testify otherwise. He acknowledged the gauge, and wished me a nice day.

A couple of months later, I showed up at traffic court on the appointed day, armed with the receipt from having my faulty radiator fan repaired. When I pleaded not guilty, the judge turned to the “arresting officer” for his testimony. He proceeded to relate the story described above, almost verbatim. Looking somewhat confused, the judge turned to me and asked me for my side of the story. Now, understand that I was pumped. I was ready with convincing arguments, ready to present evidentiary exhibits on my behalf and feeling pretty belligerent. Expecting a tougher fight, all I could say was “Uh, yeah…what he said”, or something to that effect. The judge, looking a bit disappointed, dismissed the case. I’m not sure yet if the judge was disappointed in the cop’s poor judgment or in the loss of revenue for the Commonwealth of Virginia.

I relate this story as background, because it shows a pattern in the Commonwealth of Virginia of using law enforcement as glorified toll collectors.

On the first of July this year, a law went into effect imposing extortionist fees on Virginia driver's license holders for traffic violations. These fees are to be levied on top of the usual fines ordered by the courts. Here's a sampling of the new fees:
  • Driving on a suspended license: $750
  • Reckless driving: $1,050
  • Driving under the influence: $2,250
  • Other traffic misdemeanors, which might include under-inflated tires: $900
  • Driving-related felonies: $3,000
  • Demerit points: $100 annually from drivers with eight or more points on their records. An additional $75 is collected for every point beyond eight up to a maximum of $700
The stated purpose of these fees is to make up a shortfall of $65 million needed for road improvement projects.

This scheme poses a few very obvious problems:
  • State and local police will be incented to target state residents while giving out-of-staters a pass.
  • The state should never be in the position of relying on illegal behavior for budgeted revenue.
  • Lastly, and here's the biggest single problem, concerns over revenue might prevent the passage of sensible legislation that would reduce dangerous driving!
A fundamental principle of civil administration at any level is to set taxation at levels consistent with budgetary requirements, i.e., the state must tax its citizens at a level consistent with state spending. If the state is short on money, it either increases taxes or cuts spending. Very simple, but either solution requires some amount of political courage, something of which the Virginia state legislature is apparently devoid.

Update: A shorter version of this post appeared in the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star as a letter to the editor.

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