As Americans weather unprecedented division and vitriol amid the impending presidency of Donald Trump, there’s one thing many can still agree on: the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) is a deplorable place that yields unending frustration, wasted time, and excessive fines.
In this spirit, after dealing with bureaucracy and headaches from the DMV, Virginian Nick Stafford decided to inconvenience the agency, as well. According to his version of events, after attempting to contact the Lebanon, Virginia, DMV to determine which of his four addresses he should register his son’s new car under, he was met with a road block. Rather than being connected to Lebanon, he was redirected to a call center in Richmond.
Stafford made use of the Freedom of Information Act, which is often used to obtain documents government agencies withhold. He used it to obtain the Lebanon phone number, which he received.
But as the Bristol Herald Courier, a local paper, explained:
“When Stafford called the number he was given, he said the employees at the DMV told him the phone line wasn’t meant for public use. However, Stafford said after repeated phone calls, the DMV eventually answered his licensing question.”
Apparently frustrated with the difficulty of obtaining basic information required to pay the agency in question, Stafford decided to take it several steps further:
“Stafford then decided he wanted the direct phone lines to nine other local DMVs: Abingdon, Clintwood, Gate City, Jonesville, Marion, Norton, Tazewell, Vansant and Wytheville. He said the Lebanon DMV employees wouldn’t provide those numbers.
“So, Stafford went to court to get them.”
“If they were going to inconvenience me then I was going to inconvenience them,” he told the Courier.
He eventually filed “three lawsuits in Russell County General District Court: two against specific employees at the Lebanon DMV and one against the DMV itself.”
Unsurprisingly, the court sided with the DMV in a court ruling on Tuesday after a representative for the state’s attorney general’s office presented Stafford with the requested phone numbers. The judge also declined to issue any fines or penalties to the DMV employees who failed to provide the phone numbers. These fines “could have been between $500 and $2,000 per lawsuit if the employees had ‘willfully and knowingly’ violated public records law.”
Stafford expressed the importance of making use of laws like FOIA:
“I think the backbone to our republic and our democracy is open government and transparency in government and it shocks me that a lot of people don’t know the power of FOIA.”
“The phone numbers are irrelevant to me,” he also said. “I don’t need them. I told the judge ‘I think I proved my point here.’”
But he had one more point to prove. Stafford still had to pay $3,000 in sales tax to the DMV for his purchases of two cars — his son’s and one other. He hired 11 people to break up rolls of pennies and place them in wheelbarrows, which he proudly presented to the DMV.
The employees had to count the 300,000 pennies — weighing 1,600 pounds — by hand. As the Courier notes:
“One might feel bad for the Lebanon DMV employees, who chose to count the coins by hand. But Stafford is within his legal right. According to the U.S. Department of the Treasury, ‘United States coins and currency are legal tender for all debts, public charges, taxes and dues” under the Coinage Act of 1965.’”
Stafford is not the only person to troll government agencies’ fines and fees with piles of low-value coins. In 2009, John Almany paid his $350 Virginia utilities electric bill in pennies. Last year, Frisco, Texas, resident Brett Sanders paid a $250 traffic ticket with pennies loaded into buckets.
As local, state and federal government agencies continue to impose steep fines — whether for traffic tickets, simply purchasing a vehicle, or even one’s renouncing U.S. citizenship — some Americans are apparently eager to make their indignancy known.
This is especially true in Stafford’s case, where he was inundated with bureaucracy and a lack of accountability for simply attempting to pay the State what it demanded under penalty of further fines.
These payments are undoubtedly involuntary, as they are demanded — not requested — by the State. If any of these individuals had simply refused to pay what their government agency required of them, they would have faced not only further fines but also likely would have had their property confiscated. If they still resisted, they would ultimately be met with police action to resolve the situation. For this reason, as well-known anarchist activist and philosopher Larken Rose explains in his book, The Most Dangerous Superstition:
“What might be called ‘extortion’ if done by the average citizen is called ‘taxation’ when done by people who are imagined to have the right to rule. What would normally be seen as harassment, assault, kidnapping, and other offenses are seen as ‘regulation’ and ‘law enforcement’ when carried out by those claiming to represent ‘authority.’”
Considering the ever-expanding power of government institutions that threaten citizens with potentially violent punishment for refusing to fund them, delivering hundreds of thousands of pennies may currently be the most effective way to draw attention to this top-down paradigm — outside of outright tax protests.