Court Rules on Suspension of Driver’s Licenses

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Contact Tim Wallace 
434-529-1853
twallace@justice4all.org

May 23, 2018 –
Today a divided panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision in Stinnie v. Holcomb, a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Virginia’s statutes automatically suspending driver’s licenses for failure to pay court costs and fines. In a 2 to 1 decision, the panel dismissed the appeal for technical reasons and remanded the case back to the district court to allow Plaintiffs to amend their complaint. The dissenting judge, Chief Judge Roger Gregory, would have reversed the district court’s dismissal altogether and ruled in favor of the Plaintiffs on all three jurisdictional issues, concluding that DMV Commissioner Richard Holcomb was a proper defendant.

“The Fourth Circuit’s decision today keeps this case alive,” said Angela Ciolfi, Director of Litigation & Advocacy for the Legal Aid Justice Center, “We will keep fighting to win relief for the million souls and their families caught up in Virginia’s unconstitutional license-for-payment scheme.”

Click here to read the decision. (pdf)

Background:

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.  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.  As of December 2017, 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. 

In October 2016, the Virginia Attorney General’s office filed a Motion to Dismiss on behalf of the Defendant, DMV Commissioner Richard D. Holcomb.  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 will now go back to the district court to give the Plaintiffs an opportunity to amend their complaint.

The podcast, Independent Study, 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). 

To read more about the lawsuit, or to download the briefs, 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.