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Virginia drivers wrongly charged under insurance law

State law requires motorists to either carry liability insurance or pay a $500 uninsured motor vehicle fee to the Department of Motor Vehicles.

The Associated Press

12/27/2011

RICHMOND, Va. — Virginia motorists are being ticketed and convicted of a violation that is not a crime under state law: driving without proof of insurance.

According to Virginia Lawyers Weekly (http://bit.ly/w0OeIG), court records show that drivers in several localities have been hit with hefty fines and court costs for failing to produce an insurance card during a traffic stop.

State law requires motorists to either carry liability insurance or pay a $500 uninsured motor vehicle fee to the Department of Motor Vehicles. Anyone who fails to do so, or who lies to the DMV about having insurance, can be convicted of a misdemeanor punishable by a $500 fine — but the statute says nothing about driving without proof of insurance, several lawyers confirmed.

Some Virginia police officers, however, cite that statute in charging drivers with failure to have proof of insurance.

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Court records show local police have written tickets for "no proof of insurance" in Colonial Heights and Prince William, Sussex and Dinwiddie counties. One driver was fined $100 plus $10 in court costs after being found guilty in Sussex County in May.

Attorneys who reviewed the statute agreed it does not criminalize failure to have an insurance card in your car.

"Not having proof of insurance is not an offense in Virginia. It's just incorrect," said G. Barton Chucker of Richmond, a traffic defense lawyer.

Chucker also serves as a substitute judge hearing traffic cases in Richmond. He said the issue comes up every time he sits on the traffic court bench. He added he has seen a few police officers in Richmond who try to charge motorists with failing to have proof of insurance. He said he simply tells prosecutors, "It's not the law."

Lynchburg Commonwealth's Attorney Michael R. Doucette agreed that failure to have proof of insurance while driving is not illegal.

"Rather, the offense is having an uninsured motor vehicle and not paying the uninsured motorist fee of $500 per year," Doucette said.

Doucette said requiring drivers to present either proof of insurance or proof of payment of the uninsured vehicle fee would go a long way to clear up the confusion. The General Assembly has considered such a mandate at least three times, but has never passed it.

The Trucker staff can be reached to comment on this article at editor@thetrucker.com.

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