GUEST COLUMNIST: BRIAN DOLAN
Several weeks ago I sat in on a meeting of the state House Judiciary Committee in which Rep. Robert J. Valihura Jr. expressed his consternation over the untimely nature of opposition to House Bill 158, which he has co-sponsored. Given the magnitude of the impact of this legislation, I share Rep. Valihura’s feelings, although I suspect for different reasons.
House Bill 158 would decriminalize certain traffic offenses and make them subject to civil fines. The advocates of this bill argue that decriminalization will enable the Attorney General’s Office and the courts to concentrate valuable resources currently being used to prosecute traffic offenses on more serious criminal matters. Phased implementation of the law and follow up evaluation by the Administrative Office of the Courts supposedly will ensure that these goals are being met.
The effect of this legislation is to lower the burden of proof from beyond a reasonable doubt, the criminal standard, to a preponderance of the evidence standard, which is used in civil proceedings. This change alone will ensure that more Delaware motorists are found civilly liable for traffic violations than would otherwise occur if the higher burden of proof for criminal convictions remained in force.
Moreover, the proposed legislation also provides for a major revision of the Delaware Rules of Evidence. Specifically the bill provides that while the existing evidentiary rules should be followed “insofar as practicable,” any evidence may be admitted, subject to a determination by the Court that it is relevant and has “some probative value.”
Justice of the Peace Court magistrates, the overwhelming majority of whom have only limited formal training in the law, will now be called upon to apply these emasculated rules of evidence. Invariably, police officers will be utilizing evidence that otherwise would never be admissible in court, resulting in even more Delawareans being found civilly liable.
While Delaware motorists will witness increases in their insurance premiums for the reasons previously mentioned, it is difficult to see how Delaware taxpayers will benefit from this legislation. The Justice of the Peace Court will witness explosive growth in the size of its docket.
Disingenuously, this legislation, which emphasizes decriminalization of traffic offenses, will create a new criminal offense, Operation of a Vehicle Causing Injury, which the Court of Common Pleas will now be called upon to adjudicate. Motorists causing injury from the operation of their vehicle, whether an abrasion, cervical strain (whiplash), bruise or more serious injury, will now be subject to criminal prosecution for their actions.
While the good news is that the insurance carriers of these motorists may feel compelled to defend these actions in order to prevent a conviction from compromising a subsequent personal injury action arising out of the same incident, the bad news is that the costs of defending these claims will put further upward pressure on auto insurance premiums.
In short, given the increased case load for the Justice of the Peace Court and the new jurisdiction conferred unto the Court of Common Pleas, it is difficult to see how this bill will be revenue neutral for Delaware taxpayers.
The adoption of House Bill 158 will almost assuredly lead to more adjudications of liability for traffic offenses, higher auto insurance premiums, more uninsured drivers and an increased tax burden for Delawareans. More ominously, the relaxed evidentiary standards of this law undermine the very concept of due process of law which is the bedrock of our civil liberties.
Perhaps more citizens should contact Rep. Valihura with their concerns and questions before this legislation comes to a vote in the early hours of a late June day.
Brian F. Dolan of Milton is a lawyer who practices with the firm of Stumpf Vickers & Sandy in Georgetown. He was a Democratic candidate for the state House of Representatives in 2004.