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MVA playing 'tag' with uninsured motorists

October 29, 1997

By BRENDAN KIRBY

Staff Writer

The Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration has issued a warning to uninsured drivers: The Repo Man might be coming for you.

The state has hired two private firms to seek out drivers who do not have auto insurance and take their license plates. The first five sets of tags were taken in on Friday and officials have targeted 200 drivers across the state for a six-month pilot program, said Caryn Coyle, a spokeswoman for the agency.

"Hopefully, that will keep them off the roads," Coyle said.

The MVA estimates about 5 percent of the state's 3 million drivers are uninsured in violation of the law, Coyle said. But she said the state will target only drivers who have ignored three notices.

"This is after we've exhausted every other avenue. They've been warned, they've been told to come in and they still haven't satisfied the requirements," Coyle said Monday.

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But the idea of sending private companies after uninsured motorists makes some people squeamish. Susan Goering, executive director of the Maryland chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the plan leaves room for abuse.

Goering said safeguards, such as a hearing and a right to appeal, should be built into any enforcement mechanism.

"That precisely is the crux of it," she said. "What kind of due process protections are there?"

Goering said seizing license plates without those protections is constitutionally suspect. Furthermore, she said outdated state records, errors or other mishaps could lead independent agents to take the tags of innocent drivers.

"Unless (there are safeguards), there is all sorts of risk that some license plates will be taken improperly," she said. "Mistakes do happen."

Coyle said it is important to remove uninsured drivers from the road.

"It should help significantly to improve conditions for those of us who pay our fines and follow the rules," she said.

When drivers lose their insurance, they are supposed to send their tags back to the MVA. The penalty for violating the law is $150 for the first 30 days and $7 for each addition day, according to MVA officials Marjorie Murphy.

If a driver's license plate is collected, he can contact the MVA, Murphy said. Drivers can get their tags back by paying fines and reinstating insurance, she said.

The state has set aside $10,000 from the Uninsured Motorists Compliance Program to pay for the initiative. Coyle said the state quickly scrapped a similar program in 1995 due to cost.

By contracting with private firms - at a rate of $50 per tag - the state is modeling its new initiative after a successful Florida program, Coyle said. Both firms met criteria for private detectives set up by Maryland State Police.

Allowing private companies to do such works carries its own risks, Goering said.

"These parties are not going to be as careful or feel as constrained about constitutional rights," Goering said.

State officials said they plan to expand the program and hire addition collection firms in the future.

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