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Presumed guilty

By Vin Suprynowicz
web posted February 18, 2002

It's not just that auto insurance is a government protection racket. What really grates is the fact that those who try to obey the law now get gouged worse than those who don't.

Nevada. like most states, justifies "mandatory" insurance by claiming this protects motorists who might otherwise get hit and injured by an uninsured driver. Since such deadbeats often have no assets, the victim might be left with no recourse to recover their damages, the sponsors of this racket argue.

But then, because an estimated 15 percent of drivers on Nevada roads ignore the law and drive without insurance anyway (slightly higher than the national average of 14 percent), Nevadans are quite sensibly encouraged to buy additional, separate coverage which insures them against being hit by ... uninsured motorists.

While meantime, the "down side" of this state mandate is that competing firms are unable to craft less expensive policies by offering lower coverage limits, higher deductibles, or whatever. And ironically, that lack of flexibility -- as well as the absence of any incentive to attract customers, since the state already delivers them bound at the wrists and ankles -- makes insurance less affordable and more of a burden, especially on the working poor.

Then, making things even more expensive, the state levies a whopping tax on insurance premiums -- one of the worst taxes imaginable, not only since the consumer is left no legal recourse to simply not buy the mandatory service (the justification for most "luxury" taxes), but also since it grabs a higher percentage of the income of the poorest drivers.

Is that a great racket? Wait: It gets better.

The state doesn't even make a pretense of nabbing the 121,000 Nevada motorists who bureaucrats figure have let their insurance lapse in recent years for at least seven straight days. (Heck, insurance companies routinely send in five thousand notices of dropped or non-paid-up coverage daily.) So, Nevada DMV computers each day choose 750 names at random from the list of 47,000 motorists who are "presumed" to have gone without insurance for any given week since October of 2000, and send them a notice that they owe a $250 "administrative fee" for "driving uninsured."

Aha: But what if your insurance carrier sent that notice in error, or your payment was merely delayed in the mail, or you actually had no obligation to carry insurance because the vehicle in question was up on blocks in the garage at the time?

No problem: If you can prove your car was "inoperable" during the period in question you'll only have to go down, present you proof ... and pay a $50 "reinstatement fee" rather than the $250 "administrative fee," explains Dept. of Motor Vehicles spokesman Kevin Malone.

"If you can't prove the car was inoperable then we assume the car was being driven," Malone explains. And they charge you even if you can prove you're innocent.

Isn't that special? Tens of thousands of scofflaws are driving around with no insurance -- they're not on anybody's list; they're not getting notices in the mail, because they never had insurance in the first place. (They do face some grief on the rare occasion they're pulled over by a cop -- but the punishment for "losing the insurance card lottery" is minimal enough that repeat offenders proliferate.) Yet those who have scrimped and saved and paid and paid and tried to keep their insurance in order are presumed guilty unless and until they can prove their innocence to the bureaucrats' satisfaction -- whereupon they're charged a mere $50 for someone else's mistake.

This goes against every principle of American justice and fair play, resting for centuries on the bedrock of the presumption of innocence.

Since rights cannot be converted into privileges, state regulation of motor vehicles itself rests on the presumption that "drivers" are engaged in the excisable profession of making a living hauling freight or passengers on the tax-funded roads. But good luck trying to explain to the arresting officer that you're "just traveling, not engaged in the commercial activity of 'driving' as defined by the courts," and therefore all these regulations don't apply to you.

Would we tolerate a system that required a permit to walk on the sidewalks, levied an extra tax on those who paid for the permits, and then settled for mailing citations at random to a mere 1.6 percent of lapsed permit holders who are presumed to have at one time "walked without a permit" -- charging them $50 even if they could prove they were bedridden during the period in question?

Enforcement officers would be shot on sight, wouldn't they? There'd be riots in the streets, wouldn't there?

The Nevada DMV's "citation lottery" is a bald-faced admission that levels of non-compliance are approaching the absurd heights last seen when an entire nation ignored alcohol Prohibition and flocked to the neighborhood speakeasy.

The current scheme is unenforceable. Get rid of it.

Vin Suprynowicz is assistant editorial page editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. For information on his monthly newsletter and on his next book, "The Ballad of Carl Drega," dial 775-348-8591.

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