California v. Buzard
382 U.S. 386 (1966)

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U.S. Supreme Court

California v. Buzard, 382 U.S. 386 (1966)

California v. Buzard

No. 40

Argued November 16, 1965

Decided January 18, 1966

382 U.S. 386

Syllabus

Respondent, a resident of Washington, was stationed in California under military orders. He bought an automobile while temporarily assigned in Alabama, where he registered it and obtained Alabama license plates. California, on his return, insisted he could not use the Alabama plates in that State, but that he had to register the car in California and obtain California plates. When he sought to do so, he was advised that he had to pay a registration fee and a 2% "license fee" under the state revenue and tax code. He refused to pay the latter fee. Respondent was thereafter convicted for violating a California misdemeanor provision by driving a vehicle on California highways without registering it and paying "appropriate fees." The California Supreme Court reversed the District Court of Appeal's affirmance of the conviction, on the ground that California had improperly conditioned registration of respondent's car on payment of a fee from which he was exempt under § 514 of the Soldiers' and Sailors' Civil Relief Act of 1940. Section 514(2)(b) of the Act provides for exemption in the case of motor vehicles, provided that the fee "required by" the home State has been paid. The court reasoned that, in respondent's case, no such payment to the home State was necessary, since the duty to register is imposed only as to cars driven on the home State's highways, and he had not driven in the home State that year; that the terms of the proviso were satisfied; and that, since no payment was required, respondent was not subject to the California tax.

Held:

1. The condition in § 514(2)(b) for the exemption applicable to nonresident servicemen that they must have paid the licenses, fees, or excises "required by" the State of residence or domicile means that they must have paid such licenses, fees, or excises "of" that State. It was not Congress' intention to permit servicemen in respondent's position completely to avoid registration and licensing requirements, which are within the State's police power to impose. Servicemen may be required to register their cars and obtain license plates in host States if they do not do so in their home States, and may be required to pay all taxes essential thereto. Pp. 382 U. S. 391-392.

Page 382 U. S. 387

2. Congress did not intend to include in § 514(2)(b) taxes imposed only to defray the costs of highway maintenance. Since California authorities had determined that California's 2% "license fee" serves primarily a revenue purpose and is not essential to assure registration of motor vehicles, it does not constitute a "license, fee, or excise" within the meaning of § 514(2)(b), and nonresident servicemen are therefore exempt from its imposition regardless of whether they are required to register and license their motor vehicles in California because of a failure to do so in their home States. Pp. 382 U. S. 392-396.

3. As the California Supreme Court held, the invalidity as to the respondent of the 2% "license fee" constituted a valid defense to the misdemeanor violation for which he was convicted. P. 382 U. S. 396.

61 Cal.2d 833, 395 P. 2d 593, affirmed.

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