3 lawsuits, 5 wheelbarrows, 298,745 pennies: One man’s quest to stick it to the Department of Motor Vehicles

Nick Stafford paid a sales tax at the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) in Lebanon, Virginia. with nearly 300,000 pennies as a form of protest. Eventually, the DMV’s coin counting machine started to jam, and employees had to count the unrolled pennies by hand. 

There’s principled, and then there’s whatever you may want to call Nick Stafford.

Early Wednesday morning, Stafford, a Cedar Buff, Virginia, resident, entered the Lebanon, Virginia, Department of Motor Vehicles branch Wednesday with 1,600 pounds of pennies in tow to pay a $2,987.45 bill.

He didn’t leave until 1 a.m. Thursday, according to social media posts.

One might assume that in order to gather that many coins, transport them and wait around all day as state employees counted every penny by hand, Stafford must have some reason to be extremely angry.

That’s not even taking into account the three lawsuits, countless phone calls and four months Stafford spent battling the state’s bureaucracy.

And for what?

Ten phone numbers, phone numbers Stafford told the Bristol Herald Courier he didn’t even really want.

The saga of Stafford’s one-man crusade against everyone’s least favorite local branch of government begins back in September, when he bought his teenage son a car, according to his own website. Because he owns four houses in two counties, Stafford said he was unsure to which address he should register the car.

So he looked up the Lebanon DMV’s phone number, listed as (804) 497-7100 online. But that number redirected him to a call center, where he was put on hold for an hour, he says.

Rather than wait any longer, Stafford hung up and filed a Freedom of Information Act request, asking for the internal phone number of the Lebanon Department of Motor Vehicles, he told the BBC. Once he had that, he was able to call the office directly, much to the surprise of the employees working. According to Stafford’s account, he needed to call several times before he was able to convince a DMV employee to stay on the line and answer his original question.

But once he his question had been answered, Stafford decided to request the direct numbers to 10 other DMV locations in Virginia. The Lebanon branch refused to give him them.

So he filed suit in Russell County District Court, suing two individual DMV employees as well as the entire Lebanon branch, according to court records.

“It shouldn’t matter if you pay $300 per year in income taxes or pay $300,000 per year in income taxes like myself, because the backbone of a free democracy/republic begins with government transparency, period,” Stafford said on his personal website.

And sure enough, when the court convened Tuesday, a member of the state’s attorney general’s office was on hand to offer the direct numbers to the DMV branches Stafford had requested. With that, Stafford agreed to drop the case, believing he had made his point. He also posted all the direct numbers online. The state, meanwhile, avoided what could have been at least a $500 fine for failing to comply with public records laws.

“We are pleased that the court agreed with our counsel that the argument was not a sufficient request to invoke the FOIA statutory penalties,” Brandy Brubaker, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles told the Herald Courier. “We make every effort to share information with citizens as state and federal law allows.”

Then came Wednesday’s deluge of pennies. Stafford admitted to the Herald Courier that he was trying to make life inconvenient for the DMV workers who had been less than helpful for him months earlier. What’s surprising is the lengths Stafford went to to make that happen. He hired and paid 11 people to help him remove the pennies from their rolls, bought five new wheelbarrows and hauled more than three-quarters of a ton of change.

According to the Herald Courier’s calculations, the combined cost of it all was around $1,005 out of Stafford’s pocket, without counting the near $3,000 he paid in sales tax for buying two other cars.

Inside the DMV, the number of pennies jammed the automatic coin counters the government had set up to count them all. Instead, the employees had to hand count each penny to ensure it was all there.

In a Facebook post, Stafford said the government workers were “very respectful and accommodating considering the situation.”

While Stafford’s actions might strike some inconsiderate or over-the-top, he did not break any state or federal law in the entire process.

The Sacramento Bee

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