In case you missed it, U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte successfully got a citation for driving 69 in a school zone reduced to a "defective speedometer" – saving him points on his driving record.
Said Democratic Party of Virginia Chairwoman Susan Swecker, “We find it difficult to believe that the average Virginian would have been able to negotiate the same terms that Congressman Goodlatte did. We will continue to fight for a justice system that treats everyone equally under law.”
On April 12, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with Vladimir Putin in Moscow. U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson got stuck for 20 minutes in a public housing elevator in Miami.
In Washington, Congress was in recess. According to the White House schedule, President Donald Trump had an 11:30 a.m. meeting with House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte.
We know the meeting happened because at 1:39 p.m. that day, a picture of Goodlatte alongside a beaming Trump was posted to the congressman’s Twitter account.
“Glad that I had the opportunity to meet with @POTUS today to discuss @HouseJudiciary’s priorities this Congress,” the tweet reads.
Exactly when the meeting ended is unclear, but it’s raised other questions about Goodlatte, R-Roanoke County, one of the most influential lawmakers in America, regarding matters of crime and punishment.
Just before 4 p.m. that Wednesday afternoon, a Nelson County sheriff’s deputy pulled over Goodlatte for speeding.
According to the summons issued by Deputy Danny Jones, the traffic stop occurred at 3:59 p.m. The weather was clear. Goodlatte was driving a 2011 Ford Edge with a Virginia vanity tag that reads simply “6.” Goodlatte represents the 6th Congressional District.
Jones issued a citation charging the congressman with driving 69 mph in a 35-mph school zone.
According to the ticket, the stop happened along U.S. 29 south outside the Nelson County High School/Middle School complex, about a mile south of the county seat, Lovingston.
Lovingston, according to Google Maps, is a more than three-hour drive from the White House.
What happened next is even more curious. Rather than simply paying the ticket ($238 plus a $64 processing fee), Goodlatte challenged the charge. He engaged an attorney – his wife, Maryellen, who specializes in real estate, zoning and business law.
Wednesday morning, she showed up in General District Court in Lovingston, where an assistant commonwealth’s attorney agreed to amend the charge to a non-moving violation — driving with a defective speedometer.
The court kept the fine at $238, plus the $64 processing fee; that was paid Thursday night by credit card, said Rosemary North, Nelson County General District Court clerk. The congressman also paid a $12.08 credit card fee, she noted.
By getting the charge amended, Goodlatte avoided getting points on his otherwise clean driving record.
According to the Virginia Department of Transportation, the speed limit on that stretch of highway is normally 60 mph. Before the school complex, there are stationary flashing lights in both directions that signal the 35 mph limit each morning and afternoon that school is in session (as it was April 12).
Among the questions hanging: Why was the congressman driving through Lovingston that afternoon? What was the hurry that he’d be traveling nearly double the speed limit in a school zone? Why didn’t he simply pay the ticket?
And how did his wife persuade the commonwealth’s attorney to amend the charge? Did Goodlatte, a lawyer himself, get special treatment because of the powerful position he holds in Congress? Could you or I get the same deal?
Unfortunately, you won’t find many answers to those questions here.
“I would like to refer you to the Nelson County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office for any questions regarding the legal proceedings. Beyond that, I have no comment,” said Goodlatte spokesman Beth Breeding.
Nelson County Commonwealth’s Attorney Daniel Rutherford didn’t return a phone call for comment. Neither did Maryellen Goodlatte nor Deputy Jones.
Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Erik Laub, who agreed to the deal, didn’t return two phone calls. And Nelson County Sheriff’s Capt. Robert New didn’t return three.
Laub told the (Lynchburg) News & Advance that “our office tried to treat [Goodlatte] exactly the same way we would anyone else.”
Roanoke attorney Ray Ferris said it’s not unheard of for a speeding charge to get amended to defective equipment. But it depends on the jurisdiction, he added. It would never work in Botetourt County, which is notoriously tough on speeders.
“If you’re going 20 or over in Botetourt, you’re going to jail,” Ferris said.
But in Montgomery County, it’s a different story, Ferris added. An attorney who presents an affidavit of a miscalibrated speedometer is much more likely to be able to negotiate a plea to defective equipment.
It’s unclear whether Maryellen Goodlatte presented such an affidavit in her husband’s case. If she did, it’s not part of the court file, according to the clerk’s office.
Ferris said he couldn’t predict how such a maneuver would fly in Nelson County, because he doesn’t typically practice there. So I called a couple of lawyers who do.
One was Scott Goodman of Charlottesville. The other was Leigh Drewry, whose office is in Lynchburg. Both have been practicing for more than three decades.
Goodman said Goodlatte got “a tremendous break” from the deputy, who didn’t charge the congressman with a much more serious offense, considering he was driving 34 mph over the limit.
“Reckless driving is almost automatic at 20 or more over the limit,” Goodman said. “Officers do have discretion to charge speeding [rather than] reckless driving. It’s unusual with someone going twice the limit. It’s quite a break on the charge. It’s a tremendous break.”
Part of the reason, Goodman said, is the infraction happened in a school zone at a high school. Typically when the lights are flashing, it’s when the traffic entering the highway includes slow-moving buses full of students or vehicles with inexperienced teenagers behind the wheel.
But it’s possible the coast was clear when the deputy pulled over Goodlatte, Goodman added.
Mind you, Goodman was addressing the congressman not being charged with reckless driving. He found it even more surprising that a charge of driving 69 mph in a 35-mph zone would be amended down to a defective speedometer.“I can’t conceive of them doing this agreement without [an affidavit of miscalibration] being introduced,” Goodman said. “However, most courts wouldn’t accept that evidence. You can’t be doing 69 and think you’re doing 35. That is not believable. It’s not something most courts would find credible.”
Drewry gave me a three-part answer predicated on the case being in Nelson County.
“If it were 69 in a 55, and I’ve got a client who’s got a clean driving record, it would be fairly easy to get it knocked down to defective equipment,” Drewry said.
“If it was 69 in a 35 – but not in a school zone – and the client had a clean record, depending on who the assistant commonwealth’s attorney was, I’d say the chances would be 50-50,” Drewry added.
“Before this incident, if it was 69 in 35 and it was a school zone and the lights were flashing, I wouldn’t have thought my chances were very good.”
But in the wake of Goodlatte’s widely publicized deal, “I think times have changed north of the Tye River,” Drewry said.
And what about that tweet? It could lead someone to conclude that Goodlatte made it from the White House to Lovingston — a distance of 146 miles — in one hour and 18 minutes.
Could that suggest the congressman was also tweeting while he was speeding down the road from Washington?I asked his office about that.
“The tweet you reference was sent well after the meeting ended and not while driving,” Beth Breeding replied.
I asked when the White House meeting ended.
She did not reply.