Stinnie v. Holcomb: Plaintiffs’ Statement in Response to Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss
Last evening, the Attorney General’s office filed a motion to dismiss in Stinnie v. Holcomb, a lawsuit challenging Virginia’s practice of automatically suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid court debt without inquiring into the debtor’s financial circumstances.
The Plaintiffs are disappointed that the Attorney General’s office would attempt to rely on procedural technicalities to close the courthouse doors to hundreds of thousands of Virginians who just want a chance to present their case to the court. “The state is defending the indefensible,” said Angela Ciolfi, a senior attorney at LAJC. “Since the complaint was filed, the Legal Aid Justice Center has received an outpouring of calls from people who can’t get out of the court debt trap. We’ve heard the strain and desperation in their voices as they describe how they have to choose between paying the court and paying rent, how they can’t find or keep jobs because of unreliable transportation, and how they have had to go to jail just for driving to work.”
Filed on behalf of four individually named plaintiffs, the lawsuit seeks to vindicate the rights of a class consisting of all persons whose Virginia driver’s licenses are suspended due to unpaid court debt and who, at the time of the suspension, were not able to pay due to their financial circumstances. The complaint was filed on July 6, 2016, in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia. It asks the federal court to strike down the license-for-repayment law as unconstitutional, order the Defendant DMV Commissioner to stop suspending licenses, and to reinstate the licenses of all drivers who were penalized for inability to pay.
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 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 costs and retaining their licenses.
The Plaintiffs are confident in their legal claims and are eager for the case to move forward and provide relief to the hundreds of thousands of people have suffered at the mercy of the license-for-payment system.