Drive Down the Debt: Latest Developments

Our January 2018 report, “Driving on Empty: Payment Plan Reforms Don’t Fix Virginia’s Court Debt Crisis” analyzed the payment plan policies of 116 General District Courts in the Commonwealth.  This study found that payment plan policies do not take into account an individual’s financial circumstances prior to suspending their license to drive.  This results in unrealistic and unaffordable payment plans that often lead to default.

The executive summary of the report sums up the lack of progress in 2017 despite the significant actions of the Supreme Court of Virginia to change the rules governing payment plans for court debt. These changes were later enacted by the Virginia General Assembly. 

“As of December 2017, nearly one million Virginians had driver’s licenses suspended at least in part due to court debt (974,349),and nearly two-thirds of those (638,003) were suspended solely for that reason.”

In September 2017, our Driven By Dollars report provided a state-by-state analysis of driver’s license suspension laws as they relate to unpaid court debt.  Only four states had payment plan policies that required a determination of an ability to pay prior to a license suspension.  The full report is available here and our press release on it can be found here.

On Monday, March 13, 2017, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia dismissed the lawsuit.  Legal Aid Justice Center issued the following statement on the ruling:

“Although we are disappointed in the court’s decision, 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.”

On April 13, 2017, the Plaintiffs filed a memorandum asking the court to reconsider the initial decision.

The Washington Post reported on the dismissal of the case.  The article quoted from Judge Moon’s opinion:

“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’ constitution rights to due process and equal protection. But the Constitution does not allow a federal district court to decide the matter.”

Charlottesville’s Daily Progress editiorialized that, in the newspaper’s opinion, the ruling came down to a “technicality”.

In late May, the Plaintiffs’ motion to reconsider was denied by the same federal court that ruled in March.

On June 14, 2017, the Plaintiffs filed a Notice of Appeal in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia concerning:  (1) the March 13, 2017 Order dismissing the case; and, (2) the May 22, 2017 Order, which denied reconsideration of the March 13, 2017 Order of dismissal and granted Defendant’s motion to strike.  The Plaintiffs intend to ask the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit to reverse the lower court’s order dismissing their lawsuit before giving them an opportunity to prove that the Defendant suspended their licenses unlawfully.  Angela Ciolfi, attorney with Legal Aid Justice Center, stated:

“This case is about a patently unconstitutional law that punishes hundreds of thousands of Virginians and their families for their poverty, and takes people out of the workforce.  All the Plaintiffs want is a chance to prove that the Commonwealth’s automatic suspension law violates their rights to due process and equal protection under the law.  We hope the Fourth Circuit will agree that such an important civil rights case affecting so many of Virginia’s residents should not be dismissed so early in the case.”

Plaintiff Demetrice Moore stated:

“I want to work and support my family. But public transportation is limited, and it’s hard to find jobs I can get to without a driver’s license.  Suspension for unpaid court debt makes it harder for courts to get their money.  Virginia’s policy hurts people and makes no sense.”

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