Have you ever been stung by Nevada’s Insurance Verification Program? Since 1995 Nevada has been using this unconstitutional program to steal millions of dollars from innocent citizens. What will it cost when the program is finally challenged and the Supreme Court determines that the state must return those ill-gotten gains back to the citizens?
The program works like this — the state requires that all vehicles currently registered be continually insured. In order to assure that this happens, a multi-million dollar bureaucracy has insurance companies notifying the DMV each time an insurance policy lapses. When the DMV receives notification, it runs the vehicle. If the vehicle is currently registered, it sends a notice to the victim. The notice basically says: Dear Registered Car Owner, your insurance policy lapsed and unless you can prove otherwise, we are going to suspend your registration. You need to come down to our shop and prove that it didn’t lapse to prevent this suspension. If you don’t have proof, bring your current proof of insurance and we’ll take care of it.. We need proof, though. Bring a mechanics receipt and fill out a “Dormant Vehicle Affidavit,” or give us a good hardship story and show us some hospital records. But bring the $250 or the $500 just in case we don’t believe you.
The intent of the program, according to DMV, is “to identify the uninsured motorist, enhancing the public safety of Nevada residents.” I have no problem with that. The law requires that if you drive a vehicle, you must be insured and the intent here is to keep uninsured motorists off the road. Fair enough. Clearly, it is not the intent of the law to fine people who don’t drive uninsured vehicles, but that is exactly what this program does. It doesn’t matter if the fine is $1,000, $500, $250, $50 or 50 cents, no fine should be assessed to an individual who did not drive an uninsured vehicle.
The problem is this: in an effort to keep uninsured vehicles off the road, Nevada has made it illegal just to own a vehicle without insurance. Simply owning an uninsured vehicle in no way poses a threat to the public safety of Nevada residents, but the fine must be paid anyway. What they are doing here is blatantly unconstitutional. The burden of proof is on the state. The state cannot presume guilt.
The situation is even more aggravating because the fine is assessed to your vehicle. The first $250 is actually a registration reinstatement fee. You pay $250 to reinstate even though in most cases they never actually suspend your registration in the first place. There is no opportunity to plead your case before a judge. The DMV is judge, jury and executioner. It’s “pay the money, or lose your plates — next, please; now calling No. 321 … now calling …”
The DMV is an administrative department and is clearly overstepping its bounds. When a police officer issues a citation to a citizen, that citizen has the right to plead his case to the judicial department before a guilty verdict is handed down and a fine assessed.
As an analogy, let’s apply the same logic to driving under the influence; an act that poses a much greater threat to public safety. Why not pass a law that makes it illegal to own a registered vehicle while you’re intoxicated? It can read: All owners of currently registered vehicles must remain continually sober. Before you go out drinking, you must first surrender your license plates to the DMV. The state can monitor this by having all drinking establishments report all patrons who are intoxicated to the DMV. If your name comes up and your vehicle was registered, the state will assume that you were driving under the influence and act accordingly. Of course, if you can prove you are innocent with a taxicab receipt, they’ll let you off for a $1,000 drivers license reinstatement fee. They’ll need proof. We’ll call it OUI. — owning under the influence. No need to burden the courts, either, we’ll just turn it over the DMV. Think of revenue the state can make with that one.
So the program is unconstitutional in at least four ways. First, the DMV is both enforcing the law and administering justice. The DMV can administer administrative fees, such as late fees and penalties that would be considered DMV actions, but it cannot administer punitive fees that would deprive any person of life, liberty or property without due process of the law.
Twice it violates the Fourteenth Amendment of due process. By recognizing that dormant vehicles pose no threat to public safety, the state is assuming that uninsured, registered vehicles are being driven and therefore do pose a threat by the individuals who are driving them. The individuals who are responsible for the fine have a constitutional right to be heard in a court of law, and a constitutional right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. Using the ruse of suspending a person’s registration only to immediately reinstate that registration upon receipt of $250 in order to change a punitive fee into a “DMV action” and circumvent the due proves clause is clever; but that pig won’t fly in a Supreme Court challenge. The state is still depriving people of property.
In a feeble attempt to show that the state is not completely mocking the due process clause, there is a process to request an administrative hearing through a DMV administrative court, known as the Office of Administrative Hearings. This, of course, is an appeal process taken after the fines have already been paid. The defendant, in other words, is now the plaintiff, and must prove his innocence. All that any one of the five hearing officers in the state of Nevada is likely to do is to determine that the unconstitutional procedure was carried out as the law currently requires and uphold the unconstitutional fines. Another pig that won’t fly in a Supreme Court challenge.
The program also violates the Eighth Amendment, which provides that excessive fines shall not be imposed. The fines can easily run into thousands of dollars and could require SR-22 insurance costing even more thousands. In many cases, these fines are not excessive — they are extreme.
This program has failed miserably because it tries to get in front of the problem. The only way to effectively enforce the law is to issue citations or make arrests after a person ifs found to be in violation of a law. The state can administer whatever punishment it deems necessary to deal with all of these violations after a citizen is cited by the police and later convicted in a courtroom, but it cannot get in front of the problem.
So, what’s next? The simple answer here is that this is a bad law. Stupid law. It makes no sense to expend vital energy and countless dollars trying to defend this indefensible program. The right thing for Nevada to do would be to immediately shut this program down and begin the process of returning the stolen money. Sooner or later the Supreme Court will make that happen, anyway. They may as well begin the process now. Nevada doesn’t need an insurance verification program; we have police for that.
How many innocent Nevada citizens have been unjustly and unconstitutionally fined for the crime of owning their vehicles without insurance? There are as many reasons for insurance policies to lapse as there are insurance policies. What a scam. It is time to repeal this law. But maybe it’s time for a new law. A real law. One that makes it illegal to pass new laws while under the influence of a campaign contribution. Oh, and by the way, it already is illegal to pass laws under the influence of a campaign contribution. That crime is called bribery. But that conversation must wait as well.
Paul Gould lives in Carson City.