Amicus Briefs Filed in Drivers’ License Case

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

CONTACT:
Angela Ciolfi
Director of Litigation & Advocacy, Legal Aid Justice Center
434-529-1810 | angela@justice4all.org

Linda Thomas
Chair, Virginia State Conference of the NAACP
lt1863@aol.com

Cynthia Robertson
Counsel, Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP
cynthia.robertson@pillsburylaw.com

Thomas V. Loran III
Partner, Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP
thomas.loran@pillsburylaw.com 

Shira Rawlinson
Assistant Director of Communications, Institute for Justice
srawlinson@ij.org

16 Law Professors, 18 Civil Rights and Poverty Law Organizations, and a Libertarian Law Firm File Amicus Briefs in Support of Plaintiffs in Stinnie v. Holcomb

Charlottesville, Va., August 17, 2017—Last evening, a diverse array of stakeholders filed three “friend-of-the-court” briefs urging the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals to reverse the trial court’s dismissal of Stinnie v. Holcomb for jurisdictional reasons.  These stakeholders include 16 law professors, 18 civil rights and poverty law organizations from all over the country, and the Institute for Justice.

Stinnie v. Holcomb is a class action lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Virginia’s statute automatically suspending the driver’s licenses of hundreds of thousands of Virginia drivers who cannot afford to pay court costs and fines.  In October 2016, the Virginia Attorney General’s office filed a Motion to Dismiss on behalf of the Defendant, DMV Commissioner Richard D. Holcomb.  Both the U.S. Department of Justice and the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP filed “friend-of-the-court” briefs supporting the Plaintiffs’ arguments that the statute is unconstitutional. On March 13, 2017, the U.S. District Court granted the Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss, citing jurisdictional reasons and concluding that the Commissioner was not a proper defendant. In dismissing the Plaintiffs’ complaint for jurisdictional reasons, the Court made it clear that it was not blessing the constitutionality of Virginia’s license-for-payment system, stating:  “Virginia law leads state judges to automatically suspend a defendant’s driver’s license for nonpayment of court fees and fines, regardless of his ability to pay. That unflinching command may very well violate Plaintiffs’ constitutional rights to due process and equal protection.”  (Mem. Opinion p. 35)  The case is now on appeal to the Fourth Circuit. 

Three amicus curiae briefs were filed with the Court of Appeals today:

  • The Virginia State Conference of the NAACP led a group of 18 civil rights and poverty law organizations from all over the country. They submitted a brief “to advise the Court regarding the important civil rights issues at stake, and the devastating impact that Virginia’s statutory license suspension scheme has had on some of the Commonwealth’s poorest citizens, especially its poor black citizens.”  The civil rights organizations are represented by Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP.
  • In its brief, the Institute for Justice argued that the federal courts are essential for vindicating federal constitutional rights against infringement by the states and that the Plaintiffs’ complaint should not have been dismissed. The brief goes on to explain why the case is so important:  “The Virginia statute at issue in this case jeopardizes [the right to earn a living] because it penalizes people of limited means by making it more difficult, if not impossible, for them to travel to their jobs. In essence, the law punishes drivers for being poor, and the punishment it inflicts makes those drivers even poorer. That is irrational and unconstitutional.”  The Institute for Justice is a nonprofit, public-interest law firm committed to protecting individuals’ constitutional rights, including their right to earn an honest living.   
  • A group of 16 law professors with expertise in constitutional law, civil rights, and federal jurisdiction also filed a brief in support of the Plaintiffs/Appellants. Their brief underscores the “sound development of legal doctrines governing the power of federal courts to vindicate federal rights” and warns that if adopted, “the district court’s reasoning will upend settled doctrines and close the courthouse doors to many who are entitled to invoke a federal forum to vindicate their federal constitutional rights.”  The law professors are represented by Hogan Lovells US LLP.

A full listing of the signatories is below.

“We are grateful that so many individuals and organizations appreciated how important this case is to hundreds of thousands of people and their families,” said Angela Ciolfi, attorney with the Legal Aid Justice Center. “We stand steadfast with our clients and the nearly one million long-suffering Virginia drivers who will continue to endure a never-ending cycle of debt and incarceration, so long as the law forces them to choose between driving illegally and forsaking the needs of their families.  We will not stop fighting until the automatic suspension law is struck down or repealed.”

Every year, Virginia traps hundreds of thousands of low-income residents in debt and poverty by automatically suspending their driver’s licenses for failure to pay court costs and fines, regardless of whether they could afford to pay.  Nearly one million Virginia drivers currently have at least one suspension on their license for failure to pay, including approximately 650,000 people whose licenses are suspended solely for not paying 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 jail time for driving on a suspended license.  These long-suffering Virginia drivers will continue to endure a never-ending cycle of debt and incarceration, so long as the law forces them to choose between driving illegally and forsaking the needs of their families. 

The podcast, Independent Study, recently did an in-depth profile of the case.  You can download the podcast—complete with interviews of lead Plaintiff Damian Stinnie and Charlottesville/Albemarle jail superintendent Martin Kumer—on SoundCloud (https://soundcloud.com/wtju/debtors-prison) or on iTunes (https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/independent-study/id1203225942). 

The Plaintiffs/Appellants Opening Brief (filed August 9, 2017) and the three Amicus Curiae brefs filed today are attached.  To read more about the lawsuit, go to http://www.justice4all.org/drive.

About the Legal Aid Justice Center
The Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC) fights injustice in the lives of individual Virginians while rooting out exploitative policies and practices that keep people in poverty. LAJC uses impact litigation, community organizing, and policy advocacy to solve urgent problems in areas such as housing, education, civil rights, immigration, healthcare and consumer finance. LAJC’s primary service areas are Charlottesville, Northern Virginia, Richmond and Petersburg, but the effects of their work are felt statewide. 

About the Amici

Law Professors*

  • Jack M. Beermann, Professor of Law and Harry Elwood Warren Scholar, Boston University School of Law
  • Monica C. Bell, Associate Professor of Law, Yale Law School
  • Pamela Bookman, Assistant Professor of Law, Temple University Beasley School of Law
  • Stephen L. Braga, Professor of Law and Director, Appellate Litigation Clinic, University of Virginia School of Law
  • Erin R. Collins, Assistant Professor of Law, University of Richmond School of Law
  • Robin Effron, Professor of Law, Brooklyn Law School, and Visiting Professor, Notre Dame Law School
  • Heather Elliott, Alumni, Class of ’36, Professor of Law, University of Alabama School of Law
  • John C. Jeffries, Jr., David and Mary Harrison Distinguished Professor of Law, University of Virginia School of Law
  • Lee Kovarsky, Professor of Law, University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law
  • Corinna Barrett Lain, S. D. Roberts & Sandra Moore Professor of Law, University of Richmond School of Law
  • Clare Pastore, Professor of the Practice of Law, University of Southern California Gould School of Law
  • George Rutherglen, John Barbee Minor Distinguished Professor of Law, University of Virginia School of Law
  • Adam N. Steinman, University Research Professor of Law, University of Alabama School of Law
  • Alan M. Trammell, Assistant Professor of Law, University of Arkansas School of Law (Fayetteville)
  • Stephen I. Vladeck, Professor of Law, University of Texas School of Law
  • Howard M. Wasserman, Professor of Law, FIU College of Law.*Institutional affiliations are included for identification purposes only. Amici are acting on their own behalf and not on behalf of any institution with which they are affiliated.

Civil Rights, Racial Justice, & Poverty Law Organizations
Virginia State Conference of the NAACP (“Virginia NAACP”) is an affiliate of the national NAACP. Founded in 1909, the NAACP is the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization. The mission of the NAACP is to ensure the equality of political, social, and economic rights of all persons, and to eliminate racial hatred and racial discrimination. Its members throughout the United States and the world are the premier advocates for civil rights in their communities. Throughout its history, the NAACP has used the legal process to champion equality and justice for all persons. The NAACP recognizes the importance of economic stability in advancing an equal opportunity society and advocates for smarter, results-based criminal justice policies to keep our communities safe, including an end to racial disparities at all levels in the system.

The Virginia NAACP is joined in this brief by the eighteen civil rights and poverty law nonprofit organizations identified below:

  • Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice
  • American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Virginia
  • Center for Civil Justice
  • Center for Justice
  • Colorado Center on Law and Policy
  • Equal Justice Under Law
  • Florida Legal Services, Inc.
  • Kansas Appleseed Center for Law and Justice
  • Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law
  • Mississippi Center for Justice
  • National Center for Law and Economic Justice
  • North Carolina Justice Center
  • Public Justice Center
  • South Carolina Appleseed Center for Law and Justice
  • Texas Appleseed Center for Law and Justice
  • Tzedek DC
  • Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs
  • Western Center on Law and Poverty

Institute for Justice
The Institute for Justice is the National Law Firm for Liberty.  IJ litigates to limit the size and scope of government power and to ensure that all Americans have the right to control their own destinies as free and responsible members of society. http://ij.org/

Documents:
Opening Brief (PDF)

Law Professors Amicus (PDF)

Va NAACP and Civil Rights Amicus (PDF)

Institute for Justice Amicus (PDF)

For more information about Stinnie v. Holcomb and LAJC’s efforts in this space see www.justice4all.org/drive