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Lawsuit Challenges Virginia’s Unconstitutional System of Suspending Licenses of Low-Income Drivers Who Are Unable to Pay Court Debts

 

Commonwealth Fails to Consider Debtor’s Financial Circumstances or Offer Alternatives to Hundreds of Thousands of Virginians Who Can’t Pay Costs and Fines

 

Virginia is trapping hundreds of thousands of low-income residents in debt and poverty by suspending their driver’s licenses for failure to pay unreasonable court costs and fines, according to a federal class action lawsuit filed by the Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC) against the Commissioner of the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).

The complaint asserts that Virginia fails to inquire into the reason for non-payment or consider debtors’ financial circumstances before suspending their licenses. It calls these “severe and coercive” policies discriminatory and in violation of the “fundamental principles of due process equal protection” of the laws embedded in the United States Constitution.

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, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia, 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 debt and retaining their licenses.

The filing follows the release of an analysis last month by LAJC that found most Virginia General District Courts are disregarding recommendations issued last summer by the Judicial Council of Virginia aimed at helping low-income residents pay off court costs and fines.

Virginia makes it particularly difficult for debtors to have their licenses reinstated. A person convicted of reckless driving in Virginia risks no more than a six-month suspension of their license, while a person who fails to pay court costs faces an indefinite suspension, often lasting years. In FY2015 alone, the DMV issued 366,773 orders of driver’s license suspensions resulting from unpaid court costs or fines, more than a third of which (38%) were for offenses unrelated to driving.

“Driver’s license suspension is Virginia’s form of a debtors’ prison,” said Angela Ciolfi, a senior attorney at LAJC. “Many areas of the state provide no reliable public transportation, effectively leaving people confined to their homes or forcing them to risk jail time by driving on suspended licenses.”

The case of Robert Taylor, a National Guard veteran and one of four named plaintiffs in the case, is typical of the challenges faced by low-income debtors with suspended licenses. Taylor, 28, owes money to at least four different Virginia courts, none of which assessed his ability to pay before levying court costs and fines and suspending his license. Since his offense of running a red light in April 2014, Taylor’s license has been suspended repeatedly for non-payment. Taylor, who struggles with health issues, lost his job and also faces thousands of dollars in medical and student loan debt. Without a driver’s license, he has been unable to guarantee prospective employers that he will have reliable transportation if hired. His suspended license led at least one employer to rescind a job offer.

“I don’t understand why the system was so quick to punish me for something I was eager to fix,” said Taylor, who has spent multiple days in jail for driving with a suspended license. “All I want to do is drive to work, make a decent living, and pay my debts.”

The complaint charges that the state has steadily increased court fees in order to fund its basic operations, and authorized localities to do the same. In 1989, court costs for all misdemeanor or traffic violations were $20. Now they can run more than $100, including local option fees, before adding in any charges for specific “services” such as blood withdrawal, jail admission or even reimbursement of fees paid to attorneys appointed by the state to represent people who are too poor to afford one.

The complaint calls for an injunction against the DMV, preventing it from entering orders of suspension against the licenses of low-income drivers until Virginia implements a system that properly assesses drivers’ ability to pay court debt. It also calls for the DMV to immediately reinstate the licenses of all drivers who were penalized for inability to pay. The lawsuit comes as the Virginia Supreme Court considers new rules regarding payment plans and the Virginia General Assembly prepares to hold a legislative study commission on the issue.

“We applaud the efforts of the Virginia Supreme Court and General Assembly to tackle court debt, and aim to complement those efforts with this lawsuit,” said Ciolfi. “When private creditors go to collect a debt, the law prevents them from depriving people of the means to meet the basic needs of their families and earn a livelihood; why should the Commonwealth be able to use such an extreme measure that effectively does just that? Low-income debtors deserve a path to self-sufficiency and self-respect. We hope this lawsuit gives them that path.”

Resources
Complaint (PDF)
Exhibit A (PDF)
Exhibit B (PDF)
Exhibit C (PDF)
Exhibit D (PDF)

Fact Sheet (PDF)

Media Coverage

Group files legal challenge to Virginia driver’s license suspensions for the poor (Richmond Times-Dispatch, 7/6/16)

Lawsuit seeks to stop suspension of Virginia licenses over unpaid fines (Daily Press, 7/6/16)

 

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Sad studentVirginia schools have a crisis on their hands. Waves of students are being pushed out of school though the widespread, discriminatory overuse of suspension and expulsion.

Suspended Progress, a new report released today by the JustChildren Program of the Legal Aid Justice Center reveals that, last school year, Virginia schools issued over 126,000 out-of-school suspensions to approximately 70,000 students. The report details disturbing findings from the 2014-15 school year, including:

  • One-fifth of all suspensions were issued to pre-kindergarten and elementary school students;
  • The majority of suspensions were for relatively minor, non-violent, subjective misbehavior like “disruption,” “defiance,” and “disrespect;”
  • African American students and students with disabilities were suspended at hugely disparate rates; and
  • Statewide suspension rates flattened out after years of steady progress.

“Suspension hurts everyone. Suspended students are at a significantly greater risk of academic failure, dropping out, and becoming involved in the justice system,” said Angela Ciolfi, JustChildren’s Legal Director and co-author of the report. “Worse yet, suspension damages school climate, public safety, and the economy.” The U.S. Departments of Education and Justice have been pushing states across the country to reduce school exclusion, and many states have made tremendous strides in limiting the use of suspension and expulsion, investing in prevention and alternatives, and holding districts accountable.

JustChildren’s report also provides information about proven behavioral interventions and alternatives to suspension and expulsion, including MyTeachingPartner, social and emotional learning, multi-tiered systems of support, threat assessments, and restorative practices. These programs and frameworks have been shown to both improve school safety and climate and reduce suspensions and disparities. “What’s so sad is that we know what works,” said Jason Langberg, a JustChildren attorney and co-author of the report. “We just haven’t had the political will to abandon the failed ‘zero tolerance’ mentality and to begin providing educators with the resources they need to ensure schools are safe and supportive.”

The report concludes with common sense recommendations for lawmakers and policymakers. JustChildren calls upon the General Assembly, Virginia Board of Education, and local school board members to act with a sense of urgency in promoting positive school climate and keeping students in school and on a path toward graduation and success in adulthood.

Press Release

Report

For more information, contact Angela Ciolfi at (434) 529-1810 or angela@justice4all.org.

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Future code enforcement to be more responsive to vulnerable residents’ needs; language access plan to help City residents access services.

Thirty-three current and former mobile home park residents have reached a negotiated settlement to their housing discrimination lawsuit against the City of Richmond. The residents, represented pro bono by the Legal Aid Justice Center and the law firm of Crowell & Moring LLP, had alleged that an aggressive housing code enforcement campaign violated their civil rights. Under the terms of the settlement, the City of Richmond will institute policies that will help minimize the displacement of mobile home residents in future enforcement activities and will better serve residents who are not fluent in English.

“This settlement is a positive outcome for our clients and for all mobile home park residents in the City of Richmond,” said Marie Diveley, Crowell & Moring senior counsel. “The City has agreed to take important steps that will not only benefit vulnerable mobile home park residents, but will also ensure that limited English speakers can access City services without unnecessary language barriers.”

The suit, which was filed in federal court in Richmond last August, alleged that the City violated the civil rights of the residents by targeting mobile home parks, where residents are mainly Latino, for aggressive code enforcement with the expectation that scores of vulnerable families would likely be displaced. According to the lawsuit, the City also refused to provide adequate interpretation and translation services for the limited English proficient residents, in violation of federal civil rights laws.

Under the terms of the settlement agreement the City will: work with a non-profit partner organization to assist mobile home park residents in addressing maintenance code violations prior to park-wide inspections; provide notices of code violations and appeal forms in Spanish to residents who are proficient in Spanish but not English; institute a language-access plan pursuant to federal civil rights guidelines and train City employees on their obligations under the plan; arrange for Fair Housing Act training for certain departments of City government; and provide modest monetary assistance to the plaintiffs, for repair or relocation, and to assist more generally with repairs in mobile home parks. With the agreement, the City also acknowledges that mobile homes play an important role in the affordable housing supply of Richmond.

“This settlement is the culmination of a long process of negotiation to address serious concerns on both sides,” according to Phil Storey, the Legal Aid Justice Center’s lead attorney on the case. “We are pleased that the City and the residents were able to reach a mutually agreeable resolution, thanks to assistance from Mark Rubin and VCU’s Center for Consensus Building.”

Resources

Press Release (PDF)

Aviso de Prensa (PDF)

Lawsuit (PDF)

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Driven Deeper into Debt: Unrealistic Repayment Options Hurt Low-Income Court Debtors

Screen Shot 2016-05-04 at 8.05.39 AMThe majority of Virginia General District Courts have either disregarded or fallen significantly short of recommendations issued last summer by the Judicial Council of Virginia, the state’s top judicial policy making body, aimed at helping low-income residents pay off court fines and costs, according to an analysis released today by the Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC).

As a result, hundreds of thousands of low-income residents have their driver’s licenses suspended when they are unable to cover court costs. For many drivers that means giving up their only mode of transportation to work and forcing them to choose between losing their jobs and risking incarceration for driving illegally.

LAJC calls on Virginia courts to do
much more to ensure that state residents who are unable to pay their court debts aren’t trapped by ill-conceived payment policies that are unrealistic and counter-productive.  It also notes that indigent Virginians should receive extra consideration, such as foregoing driver’s license suspension when poverty precludes payment. “These individuals should be afforded a way to maintain licenses, and their livelihood, despite their poverty,” the analysis states.

Full Report (PDF)

Full Press Release (PDF)

See our Campaign Page

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Federal Class Action Challenges Antiquated Virginia “Habitual Drunkard” Law That Jails Homeless Individuals

The Legal Aid Justice Center and Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP filed a class action lawsuit in federal court challenging the constitutionality of the Commonwealth of Virginia’s “habitual drunkard” statute, to the extent it criminalizes the possession or consumption of alcohol by homeless alcoholics.

The complaint asserts that Commonwealth’s Attorneys Offices across Virginia have used the state’s outdated “habitual drunkard” statute, or Interdiction Statute (Va. Code § 4.1-322), to repeatedly incarcerate homeless individuals, violating their constitutional rights by punishing homeless alcoholics for having the disease of alcoholism. It also violates their right to due process by criminalizing the possession or consumption of alcohol – an otherwise lawful activity – without required constitutional protections. The complaint also challenges the statute as unconstitutionally vague because it fails to define “habitual drunkard” and encourages arbitrary police enforcement.

Resources
Full Complaint (PDF)
Press Release (PDF)
Fact Sheet (PDF)

Media Coverage
Charlottesville Group Challenging ‘Habitual Drunkard’ Law (WVIR-TV NBC29, 3/3/16)
Challenging a State Law that Jails Alcoholics (WVTR-Radio IQ, 3/3/16)
LAJC Challenges Habitual Drunkard Statute (CBS19 Newsplex, 3/3/16)
Lawsuit Seeks to End Jail Time for the Homeless (Roanoke Times, 3/3/16)
Lawsuit: Officials Use Statute to Punish Homeless Alcoholics (The Virginia-Pilot, 3/4/16)
Attorneys File Class-Action Lawsuit Against Virginia’s ‘Habitual Drunkard’ Laws (Richmond Times-Dispatch, 3/6/16)

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Protecting Childhood: A Blueprint for Developmentally Appropriate School Policing in Virginia

The JustChildren Program at the Legal Aid Justice Center has released a report identifying the problems of placing law enforcement officers in schools. The report provides a list of detailed recommendations that will improve school safety, increase academic achievement, and help break down the school-to-prison pipeline.

School security personnel are increasingly commonplace in Virginia’s public schools. There are two types. School resource officers (SROs) are certified law enforcement officers who are typically employed by local law enforcement agencies and assigned to provide coverage to public schools. School security officers (SSOs) are individuals employed by school divisions to maintain order and discipline in their assigned schools. To date, little analysis of school policing in the Commonwealth exists. This report aims to change that.

More info here.

Report says Virginia should require school police training and alter laws to reduce arrests (Center for Public Integrity)

Full Report (PDF)

 

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PLAINTIFFS IN HOUSING DISCRIMINATION LAWSUIT ASK COURT FOR PRELIMINARY INJUNCTION AGAINST CITY OF RICHMOND

Residents of mobile home parks seek protection from threat of homelessness from discriminatory code enforcement while civil rights suit is pending.

Richmond, Virginia, October 9, 2015—Current and former mobile home park residents, plaintiffs in a civil rights lawsuit against the City of Richmond, filed a motion yesterday asking the federal court to prohibit the City from condemning or issuing further threats against mobile homes while the case moves forward.  The lawsuit was filed on August 18 alleging violations of the federal Fair Housing Act and other civil rights laws because the City has targeted overwhelmingly Latino-occupied mobile home parks for a campaign of aggressive building code enforcement.  The filing, asking the court for a preliminary injunction, argues that mobile home park residents suffer constant anxiety, worrying day-to-day that the City will condemn their homes and leave them suddenly homeless.

Resources

Motion for Preliminary Injunction (PDF)

Memorandum of Law with Exhibits (PDF)

News item from filing of lawsuit

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Charlottesville, VA, September 16, 2015—The settlement agreement between the women prisoners at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women (FCCW) and the Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC) was officially submitted on Tuesday, September 15. The agreement proposes to settle a class action lawsuit concerning the medical care provided at the Fluvanna County prison. Federal District Judge Norman Moon granted preliminary approval of the settlement on Wednesday, September 16.  Notice will be sent to the women prisoners, and Judge Moon must review and approve the settlement agreement, considering any objections by prisoners, before it becomes final.

More details about the settlement, including settlement documents and other materials related to the case, can be found here.

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MOBILE HOME RESIDENTS FILE DISCRIMINATION LAWSUIT IN FEDERAL COURT AGAINST CITY OF RICHMOND

City’s code enforcement campaign is discriminatory and aims to shut down a vital source of affordable housing.

A group of 32 current and former mobile home park residents filed a fair housing lawsuit against the City of Richmond in Federal Court after a year of trying to cooperate with the City. The suit alleges that the City’s code enforcement campaign against mobile home parks, which began in early 2014, has violated the civil rights of residents. The lawsuit describes multiple attempts to resolve the safety concerns all of which were rejected by the City.

The group filed the lawsuit with the help of the Legal Aid Justice Center in Richmond and the law firm of Crowell & Moring in Washington, D.C. It alleges that the City’s enforcement campaign discriminates by specifically targeting mobile home parks, where residents are mainly Latino. “Instead of finding ways to help ensure they have safe housing, inspectors are threatening to shut down the only option many of these families can afford,” according to Legal Aid Justice Center attorney Phil Storey.

The lawsuit describes ways the City has subjected mobile home residents to harsh enforcement actions. These include intrusive inspections with armed police escorts; threats to condemn homes or even bring criminal charges if residents don’t allow inspectors inside; and unreasonable repair standards that make compliance unrealistic.

Resources

Press Release (PDF)

Aviso de Prensa (PDF)

Lawsuit (PDF)

Media Coverage

City Strangles Poor with Red Tape (Richmond Times-Dispatch, 8/25/15)

Mobile Home Lawsuit Reflects Poorly on City (Richmond Times-Dispatch, 8/24/15)

Staking a Claim (Richmond Magazine, 8/23/15)

Mobile Home Residents File Lawsuit Against Richmond (Richmond Free Press, 8/20/15)

Latino Families File Federal Discrimination Lawsuit Against City of Richmond (WWBT NBC12 Richmond, 8/18/15)

Mobile Home Residents File Federal Lawsuit Alleging Richmond Is Violating Latinos’ Civil Rights (Richmond Times-Dispatch, 8/18/15)

 

 

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United States Agrees to Settle Lawsuit Alleging Wrongful Deportation

Washington D.C. – After more than two years of litigation, the U.S. government has agreed to settle a lawsuit filed by Leonel Ruiz on behalf of his minor daughter, E.R. The suit alleged that in 2011, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), a component of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), unlawfully detained Mr. Ruiz’s then 4-year-old daughter – a U.S. citizen – when she arrived at Dulles Airport in Virginia, deprived her of any contact with her parents, and sent her back to Guatemala rather than allowing her to join her parents, who awaited her arrival in New York.

According to the complaint, during the twenty hours E.R. was detained in CBP custody with her grandfather, she was given nothing to eat other than a cookie and soda and nowhere to nap other than the cold floor. She was finally able to return home to the United States nearly three weeks later, but only after her father hired a local attorney to fly to Guatemala to retrieve her.

“With ever-increasing numbers of U.S.-born children of mixed-status families, this will continue to be a problem unless CBP formally trains its officers on how to better handle issues around returning U.S. citizen children,” said Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg, director of the Legal Aid Justice Center’s Immigrant Advocacy Project, which also provided pro bono representation to E.R. “CBP’s role is to facilitate lawful entries into the United States, not to throw up barriers and roadblocks.”

Full Release (American Immigration Council)

Media Coverage