Lawsuit Challenges Virginia’s Unconstitutional System of Suspending Licenses of Low-Income Drivers Who Are Unable to Pay Court Debts
Commonwealth Fails to Consider Debtor’s Financial Circumstances or Offer Alternatives to Hundreds of Thousands of Virginians Who Can’t Pay Costs and Fines
Virginia is trapping hundreds of thousands of low-income residents in debt and poverty by suspending their driver’s licenses for failure to pay unreasonable court costs and fines, according to a federal class action lawsuit filed by the Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC) against the Commissioner of the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).
The complaint asserts that Virginia fails to inquire into the reason for non-payment or consider debtors’ financial circumstances before suspending their licenses. It calls these “severe and coercive” policies discriminatory and in violation of the “fundamental principles of due process equal protection” of the laws embedded in the United States Constitution.
Nearly 1 million Virginia drivers currently have suspended licenses for failure to pay court costs and fines. For many drivers that means giving up their only mode of transportation to work, forcing them to choose between losing their jobs and risking incarceration for driving illegally.
The complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia, argues that these practices trap low-income Virginians in a vicious cycle, depriving them of reliable lawful transportation to take children to school, keep medical appointments, care for ill or disabled family members, and “paradoxically, to meet their financial obligations to the courts.” By contrast, the lawsuit notes that wealthier drivers have little difficulty covering court debt and retaining their licenses.
The filing follows the release of an analysis last month by LAJC that found most Virginia General District Courts are disregarding recommendations issued last summer by the Judicial Council of Virginia aimed at helping low-income residents pay off court costs and fines.
Virginia makes it particularly difficult for debtors to have their licenses reinstated. A person convicted of reckless driving in Virginia risks no more than a six-month suspension of their license, while a person who fails to pay court costs faces an indefinite suspension, often lasting years. In FY2015 alone, the DMV issued 366,773 orders of driver’s license suspensions resulting from unpaid court costs or fines, more than a third of which (38%) were for offenses unrelated to driving.
“Driver’s license suspension is Virginia’s form of a debtors’ prison,” said Angela Ciolfi, a senior attorney at LAJC. “Many areas of the state provide no reliable public transportation, effectively leaving people confined to their homes or forcing them to risk jail time by driving on suspended licenses.”
The case of Robert Taylor, a National Guard veteran and one of four named plaintiffs in the case, is typical of the challenges faced by low-income debtors with suspended licenses. Taylor, 28, owes money to at least four different Virginia courts, none of which assessed his ability to pay before levying court costs and fines and suspending his license. Since his offense of running a red light in April 2014, Taylor’s license has been suspended repeatedly for non-payment. Taylor, who struggles with health issues, lost his job and also faces thousands of dollars in medical and student loan debt. Without a driver’s license, he has been unable to guarantee prospective employers that he will have reliable transportation if hired. His suspended license led at least one employer to rescind a job offer.
“I don’t understand why the system was so quick to punish me for something I was eager to fix,” said Taylor, who has spent multiple days in jail for driving with a suspended license. “All I want to do is drive to work, make a decent living, and pay my debts.”
The complaint charges that the state has steadily increased court fees in order to fund its basic operations, and authorized localities to do the same. In 1989, court costs for all misdemeanor or traffic violations were $20. Now they can run more than $100, including local option fees, before adding in any charges for specific “services” such as blood withdrawal, jail admission or even reimbursement of fees paid to attorneys appointed by the state to represent people who are too poor to afford one.
The complaint calls for an injunction against the DMV, preventing it from entering orders of suspension against the licenses of low-income drivers until Virginia implements a system that properly assesses drivers’ ability to pay court debt. It also calls for the DMV to immediately reinstate the licenses of all drivers who were penalized for inability to pay. The lawsuit comes as the Virginia Supreme Court considers new rules regarding payment plans and the Virginia General Assembly prepares to hold a legislative study commission on the issue.
“We applaud the efforts of the Virginia Supreme Court and General Assembly to tackle court debt, and aim to complement those efforts with this lawsuit,” said Ciolfi. “When private creditors go to collect a debt, the law prevents them from depriving people of the means to meet the basic needs of their families and earn a livelihood; why should the Commonwealth be able to use such an extreme measure that effectively does just that? Low-income debtors deserve a path to self-sufficiency and self-respect. We hope this lawsuit gives them that path.”
Fact Sheet (PDF)
Group files legal challenge to Virginia driver’s license suspensions for the poor (Richmond Times-Dispatch, 7/6/16)
Lawsuit seeks to stop suspension of Virginia licenses over unpaid fines (Daily Press, 7/6/16)