Virginia’s largest jurisdiction is cracking down on local residents and businesses whose cars are registered out of state – a problem that officials attribute to the commonwealth’s property tax on cars and its refusal to issue driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants.
Since July 2015, Fairfax, Virginia officials have identified 2,300 incorrectly registered vehicles – 742 with Maryland plates – and recovered about $600,000 in unpaid vehicle property taxes.
Maryland does not levy property taxes on vehicles, making it cheaper to register a personal vehicle – or a fleet of limousines or taxi cabs – there rather than in Virginia, county officials say.
In addition, Maryland and the District are among the jurisdictions that allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. Virginia has long resisted granting driver’s licenses to such individuals, or to anyone who can’t prove they legally reside in the state.
The commonwealth’s strict driver’s license law was passed in 2003, after it became known that nearly half of the hijackers involved in the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks had obtained driver’s licenses in Virginia.
Many of Virginia’s estimated 275,000 undocumented immigrants get driver’s licenses in Maryland or the District using false addresses, advocates say. Having driver’s licenses from those jurisdictions means that they also must register their vehicles there.
State Sen. Scott Surovell, whose district in eastern Fairfax County, Virginia, and portions of Prince William County, Virginia, has a large immigrant population, said constituents have told him that they go to Maryland to obtain driver’s licenses and state identification.
During a recent town hall meeting, “the first thing that came up, and it came up repeatedly, was: ‘We’d really like to have a government ID here,’ ” Surovell said. “They’re willing to pay the taxes here.”
This year the Republican-controlled General Assembly ordered the Department of Motor Vehicles to study how other states have implemented programs to issue driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants and whether those programs have affected highway safety and the economy. Recommendations are due in October.
Immigrant advocates say local governments in Fairfax County and other jurisdictions should lobby the General Assembly to make driver’s licenses available to undocumented immigrants.
“No one that I’ve spoken to thinks that they’re cheating the system by doing this,” Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg, legal director of the Legal Aid Justice Center in Falls Church, said about the practice. “They just have an understanding that you can’t drive or own a car without a license, so you have to figure out a way to get a license.”
Arlington County, Virginia has actively looked since 2007 for vehicles that are registered elsewhere but should be on county tax rolls.
“My staff goes out three times a week, early in the morning before the owners go to work,” said Ingrid Morroy, the commissioner of revenue. “We also have access to a number of underground garages in apartment buildings and high-rise buildings.”
Fairfax County launched its enforcement effort last summer. Supervisor Jeff McKay, who initiated the crackdown, said that he was prompted by complaints from residents in his district about cars with Maryland tags.
“I don’t care why they’re doing it so much, but if they are, they need to be on the tax rolls,” McKay said. “Something is happening out there that encourages people to register their car in Maryland and house it in Virginia. My sense is that what we’ve found so far is just the tip of the iceberg.”
So far, county officials said, there hasn’t been any backlash from residents or businesses whose vehicles have been cited. But for some of those affected, the financial impact can be substantial.
Tony Simon, chief operating officer of Reston Limousine, said about a fourth of the company’s fleet of about 160 limousines and vans were registered under an office address in Maryland because some of its customers are in that state.
After being contacted by the county, Reston Limo, based near Dulles International Airport, reluctantly agreed to switch registration to Virginia.
With a county property tax rate of $4.57 per $100 of assessed value, the company is facing a payment of about $140,000.
“It’s a big cost,” Simon said. “We’re talking about over 30 to 40 vehicles and these are worth $100,000 or more each.”
Nonetheless, he said, “We are here to comply.”
Fairfax’s enforcement effort is based mostly on resident reports, although county police will sometimes pull over drivers, officials said. Police run the license plate to determine who owns the vehicle, and then check to see whether that person lives out of state.
Members of the U.S. military or students temporarily living in Fairfax are permitted to have out-of-state plates. But for other vehicle owners, the county Department of Tax Administration will mail out tax bills.
Residents who think that they were cited incorrectly can appeal to the county and then to Circuit Court, county officials said.
Cyra Doty said she has noticed several cars with Maryland plates on her block in Annandale, and she is certain that some of them belong to her neighbors. She has called county police about a commercial van parked in front of her house for days at a time that bears Minnesota tags.
“That’s just tax dollars walking out the door,” said Doty, who has lived in her neighborhood since 2004. “It would alleviate some of our budget issues with schools and other things if we were getting money from all these people with Maryland plates.”