Driver’s License Lawsuit Back in District Court

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE                              

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

Plaintiffs are Back to Challenge Virginia DMV’s Unconstitutional System of Suspending Licenses of Low-Income Drivers Who are Unable to Pay Court Debts

Commonwealth’s law unfairly traps low-income people in a vicious cycle of debt, unemployment, and incarceration

Charlottesville, Va., September 11, 2018 – Today the Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC) filed an amended complaint, motion for class certification, and motion for preliminary injunction in Stinnie v. Holcomb, a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Virginia’s statute automatically suspending driver’s licenses for failure to pay court costs and fines. The original complaint was filed in 2016, dismissed by the district court in 2017, and revived by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2018 when it permitted the plaintiffs to amend their complaint.

The amended complaint alleges that Virginia’s license-for-payment suspension statute violates the due process and equal protection rights of low-income drivers suffering under license suspensions for no other reason that they cannot afford to pay court fines and costs.

Nearly one million Virginians (approximately 1 in 6 drivers) currently have suspended licenses for failure to timely pay court fines and fees. The suspension process happens automatically after even one delinquent payment and can end up lasting years, especially for low-income residents who must prioritize their essential basic needs: rent, utilities, groceries, and taking care of the health and welfare of their children and other relatives, including those who are elderly and/or have disabilities.

For far too many, this harsh suspension law forces a choice between providing for their families and risking incarceration for driving illegally. In Virginia, a third offense for driving without a license carries a mandatory sentence of 10 days’ jail time. From 2011-2015, Virginians who had lost their license only for failure to pay court fines and fees were sentenced to a total of approximately 1.74 million days in jail for driving on a suspended license. Such incarceration not only prevents people from paying their existing court debt, it adds new debt to their balance and costs the Commonwealth hundreds of thousands of dollars per year to keep debtors behind bars.

The time has come for courts and policymakers to recognize this license-for-payment system for what it is: an unconstitutional deprivation that props up a form of debtors’ prison in the Commonwealth. Nearly 87% of Virginians travel to work by car, and reliable, accessible public transit remains scarce throughout the state, making a driver’s license essential to finding and maintaining employment. For those whose licenses are their employment—truck drivers, construction vehicle operators, bus drivers, and even some healthcare positions, for example—a license suspension is effectively a job termination.

The case of Adrianne Johnson, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, is the embodiment of the kind of vicious cycle this license-for-payment system creates for low-income residents across the Commonwealth. Ms. Johnson accrued court debt in 2013 while working for low hourly wages as a nursing assistant. She attempted to maintain a payment plan to pay down $865 in court costs, but struggled to keep up with monthly payments while also caring for her two children, working jobs that typically paid between $7.25 and $10 per hour. She continued to risk driving because she needed to get to work and to take her daughter to doctors’ appointments. In 2017, she was convicted of driving on a suspended license, which added nearly $250 to her overall court debt. The compounding debt and an unreasonable payment plan have led to another automatic license suspension for Ms. Johnson, and she does not drive anymore, which has affected not only her employment prospects, but her daughter’s health, as well.

Ms. Johnson’s struggles parallel those faced by thousands upon thousands of low-income Virginians across the Commonwealth who owe court debt but are stripped of the very tool they need to pay it down.

“The suspension statute sets up two justice systems in Virginia,” said Angela Ciolfi, Director of Litigation and Advocacy at the Legal Aid Justice Center. “Those who can immediately pay court fines or fees are able to quickly untether themselves from their infractions, while those who do not have the resources to pay continue to be punished well beyond their original infraction—they are punished for their poverty, and set up for even harsher consequences as their debts compound, their jobs are lost, and their families struggle to make ends meet.”

Amended Complaint (pdf)

Memo Supporting Class Certification (pdf)

Memo Supporting Preliminary Injunction (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 is now back in the district court to give the Plaintiffs an opportunity to amend their complaint, which they are doing today, along with filing motions for class certification and a preliminary injunction. In their motion, the Plaintiffs are asking the Court to order the DMV Commissioner to stop enforcing the statute, and to remove the unlawful suspensions from Plaintiffs’ driving records without charging a reinstatement fee.

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.