Note from Dan: While I’m on vacation with my family, I’m treating you to some columns from the past year. This one appeared Jan. 29, 2012. Since it ran, Joe Campbell hasn’t gotten any more speeding tickets.
Joe Campbell was speeding, and a Roanoke County police officer caught him dead to rights.
It was Nov. 15, on U.S. 220 in Clearbrook. The Glenvar resident, who moved here from California in 2006, was coming back from visiting a friend in North Carolina.
He was going 66 in a 45 mph stretch in his Subaru station wagon. Because Campbell, 67, was polite and cooperative, the cop gave him a break. He didn’t charge him with reckless driving, which he could have.
It was Campbell’s first traffic ticket in Virginia. (He said his last moving violation was in 1970.) He decided to mail in the fine because, after all, he was guilty.
That’s when things got a little weird.
Interesting fact: Speeding tickets in Virginia don’t specify your fine — you have to calculate that. It’s $6 for every mile per hour over the limit you’re driving. For Campbell, it translated into $126, which is pretty stiff.
The tickets also warn you to call General District Court before you mail in the fine. So Campbell did. That’s when he learned from a taped message that he also had to pay a $66 “processing fee.”
“What is the process?” he wondered.
How involved is it, that it should cost $66? That’s more than a whole day’s pay for someone who earns minimum wage.
Campbell got a clerk on the phone at the courthouse in Salem, but he couldn’t get an answer. Neither could I when I called there.
“You have to call the Supreme Court of Virginia,” the clerk told me.
So that’s what I did on Tuesday. I told the person who answered why I was calling, and she transferred me to a second person who put me through to a third.
That was Jennifer Perilli, assistant to the director for public relations.
After a brief explanation I asked, “What is the process?”
Perilli was cordial and she tried to help but could give me no answer. So she took a message and promised someone would get back to me.
On Wednesday, I heard from Paul DeLosh, the court’s director of judicial services.
There is actually a five-step process that occurs when you send in your speeding ticket and fine, he informed me.
First, a clerk opens the envelope. Second, “they review fines and costs that are due,” DeLosh said. Third, the clerk verifies that the correct amount was sent in. Fourth, they log the payment into a financial management system at the courthouse. And fifth, “there’s the normal process of taking the check, or cash, and depositing it,” DeLosh said.
For the most part, you do all of this for free every time you get a paycheck.
“Why does it cost so much for that?” I asked DeLosh.
“The fees are mandated by the code,” he replied.
Ah, that explains a lot. It was something cooked up by the Virginia General Assembly.
Recall, those are the geniuses who in 2007 gave us “abusive driver fees,” probably the most accurately named law in the legislature’s 403-year history. Voters felt so abused by those that they embarrassed lawmakers into quickly repealing them.
DeLosh helpfully cited the applicable code section. So I looked it up. The “processing fee” dates back at least 16 years.
Over that time, it’s been gradually raised. More recently, the legislature has tacked on a bunch of other fees to it.
Of the total, $39 is for the clerk to open the envelope and so on. But speeders or other drivers nabbed by police are also getting nicked:
>> $3 for the Virginia Crime Victim-Witness Fund;
>> $1 for the Regional Criminal Justice Training Academies Fund;
>> $2 for the Courthouse Construction/Maintenance Fund;
>> $4 for the Intensified Drug Enforcement Jurisdiction Fund;
>> and $2 for the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Victim Fund.
Notice, all that adds up to $51, not $66.
That’s because separate state laws allow for additional “local option” fees. One is for courthouse security; the other’s for funding local criminal justice training academies (as opposed to a “regional” academy). Those fees vary by locality. In Roanoke County, they add up to an additional $15.
Thus, when you send in a ticket for speeding, you’re also paying for witnesses that are unneeded (because you’re pleading guilty). And for the education of future police officers (who will try to catch you speeding again).
And for security, floor-sweeping and taking out the trash at a courthouse you’re not using (because you’re not challenging the ticket). And for police to enforce drug laws (which, come on, they ought to be doing already).
And to fund programs for victims of sex abuse and domestic violence (a worthy cause, although it has absolutely nothing to do with traffic offenses).
In fact, the “processing fee” is also exactly what you would pay in court costs if you took the ticket to trial, wasted a judge’s time, and were convicted. The way the law reads, that’s no accident. They get you one way or the other.
One way you can tell that this has gotten out of whack is that in some cases the fee is more than the traffic fine.
That’s what happened to Jennifer Perilli, the cordial assistant at the Virginia Supreme Court. She told me she recently got her first ticket. The fine was $60 and her “processing fee” was $62.
So there’s the long answer to Joe Campbell’s short question.
When you get right down to it, “processing” is probably an accurate description for the fee.
Because there’s a process all right. It’s a process of overcharging inattentive drivers merely for accepting their check, and also requiring them to pay for a bunch of other things that have nothing to do with their offense.
Thank you, Virginia General Assembly.
Next year, perhaps you can do something for us good-driving little guys: Pass a law that allows us to charge a “processing fee” to our employers for cashing our paychecks.