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December 3, 2018

Press contacts:
Lizette Olmos, lolmos@weareacasa.org (240) 706-2624 mobile
Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg, simon@justice4all.org, (703) 720-5605 direct dial

Fourth Circuit to Hear Arguments in Key Immigrants’ Rights Cases
Plaintiffs, Attorneys, and Supporters Gather After Hearings on DACA Cancellation and Racial Profiling of Immigrants to Weigh in on Cases

WHO: DACA-mented Plaintiffs, Litigators, CASA, Legal Aid Justice Center, and supporting organizations including Church World Service

WHERE: Steps of US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, Corner of Bank and N. 10th Street, Richmond, VA

WHAT: Press Conference and Rally Featuring Immigrants Challenging the Trump Administration in Court

WHEN: Tuesday, December 11th at 11:30 a.m.

RICHMOND, VA (Monday, December 3, 2018) – Immigrants will gather outside the U.S. Court of Appeals next Tuesday to describe their efforts to challenge the actions of the Trump Administration and ICE agents before a court of law. The press conference and rally is being held at a rare confluence of separate cases that together challenge core pillars of the Trump administration’s attempts to permanently alter the lives of immigrants in America.

The first case, Casa de Maryland v DHS, is brought by 16 DACA-mented immigrants and 9 immigrant rights organizations to challenge the administration’s cancellation of the DACA program. This case joins others across the country that seek to reverse the administration’s discriminatory and illegal termination of the program; a decision that has left in limbo the lives of people brought to the US as children.

The second case, Mynor Tun-Cos v. B. Perrotte, is brought by the Legal Aid Justice Center on behalf of nine plaintiffs whose constitutional rights were violated by ICE agents during raids in Fairfax and Arlington Counties involving racial profiling and warrantless home invasions. In response to the lawsuit, the Trump Administration’s Department of Justice is arguing to the Court of Appeals that individuals may never sue ICE agents under any circumstances for violating their constitutional rights.

A third case, Reyna v. Hott, also filed by the Legal Aid Justice Center, will be heard the following day and challenges ICE’s practice of separating families by transferring immigrant detainees to out-of-state detention centers away from their U.S.-born children. A group of leading child development specialists from Harvard University and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry filed a brief in support of the class action, describing the mental harm to children when their parents are detained far away without the possibility of visitation.
                                       
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With almost 100,000 members, CASA is the largest Latino and immigrant organization in the Mid-Atlantic region spanning Maryland, Virginia and South Central Pennsylvania. More information about CASA’s services, organizing, and advocacy work is available at www.wearecasa.org or follow us on Facebook CASAforAll or Twitter @CASAforall.

Legal Aid Justice Center is a statewide Virginia nonprofit organization whose mission is to strengthen the voices of low-income communities and root out the inequities that keep people in poverty. We provide legal support to immigrant communities facing legal crises and use advocacy and impact litigation to fight back against ICE enforcement and detention abuses. More information is available at https://www.justice4all.org/current-initiatives/fighting-ice-enforcement-abuses/ .

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CONTACT:
Rachael Deane
Legal Director, JustChildren Program, Legal Aid Justice Center
804-521-7304 | rachael@justice4all.org

Legal Aid Justice Center Responds to Richmond Times-Dispatch Editorial on Students with Autism

Richmond, Virginia (November 30, 2018) – In response to the recent Richmond Times-Dispatch editorial on children with autism, the Legal Aid Justice Center makes the following statement:

The Richmond Times-Dispatch editorial, “Bring more light to decisions about autism and the classroom,” evokes a much darker time in Virginia’s history: when we routinely separated children with disabilities from their families and peers and placed them in institutions. Whether they were called orphanages, state hospitals, or group homes, these facilities segregated and secluded children with disabilities, offered little education, and were breeding grounds for physical and emotional abuse. Prior to the enactment of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (now the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA) in 1975, millions of children with disabilities in the United States had no access to public education, and unsafe institutions were the norm.

Provision of a public education to children with autism is not “special treatment”—it’s the law. The IDEA and its progeny of court cases guarantee children with disabilities the right to receive a free, public education tailored to their individual needs. The IDEA requires public schools to educate children with disabilities in the least restrictive environment: to the maximum extent possible, these children must be educated alongside other children without disabilities. The law recognizes that all children benefit when they learn in an integrated, diverse environment.

Children with autism—like all children—are not a monolithic population, nor are the behaviors associated with autism categorically disruptive or indicative of the need for removal from a classroom. And the notion that classrooms are ever pristinely “free from interruption” such that students with autism or other disabilities are exacting a cost on others is a harmful myth. Children can be disruptive in classrooms for a variety of reasons that run the gamut from hunger to trauma to academic frustration to just a simple bad mood. As we noted in our Suspended Progress 2018 report, exclusionary discipline—using access to education as a form of punishment—is harmful and self-defeating. The Virginia Department of Education and many local school divisions are rightly turning to root-cause disciplinary interventions, recognizing that behavior is a symptom, and that student accountability doesn’t have to mean punishment or exclusion. They should be commended for taking this research-driven, goal-oriented direction—which does include methods such as restorative practices, an optional tool that many divisions already implement with great success.

Budgetary stress in Virginia’s public schools is not the fault of children with autism or any other child who enters the schoolhouse with unique educational needs. Instead, we have only ourselves to blame. Virginia’s schools have been strapped for cash for decades, while student needs and the Commonwealth’s performance expectations continue to increase. In 2009, the General Assembly slashed funding for school support positions by implementing an arbitrary cap on the amount of state dollars that go toward funding school counselors, psychologists, social workers, and other vital positions. The Virginia Board of Education has recommended more than one billion dollars per biennium in additional funding just to meet minimum educational standards for all children, whether they come to school with disabilities or not.

Compassion and understanding are not zero-sum goals. Education is not a gift we choose to bestow upon children with autism if we decide the “tradeoffs” are worth it. And we are not mainstreaming students with disabilities by assuring their access to education in the least restrictive environment. Students with disabilities—including autism—are the mainstream, as are other children with unique educational needs—like economically disadvantaged students, English Learners, and students dealing with trauma. Every child in our schools is brimming with potential, with so much to teach one another.   

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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, worker’s rights, civil rights, immigration, healthcare and consumer finance.

Follow us on Twitter @LegalAidJustice and find us on Facebook.

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

Legal Aid Justice Center Announces New Executive Director, Angela Ciolfi

Charlottesville, Virginia (November 28, 2018) – The Legal Aid Justice Center is pleased to announce that Angela Ciolfi has been selected to be its new executive director, following the departure of Mary Bauer, who served in that role from 2013 to 2018.

Ciolfi was hired after a six-month search conducted by LAJC’s Board of Directors and the hiring firm Nonprofit Professionals Advisory Group LLC (NPAG). Over the hiring period, NPAG engaged over 300 sources and vetted dozens of prospects and leads. The hiring committee of the Board then interviewed six final candidates before the Board decided on Ciolfi.

“Angela is exactly who LAJC and frankly Virginia needs right now,” said LAJC board chair Jonathan Blank, a partner at McGuireWoods LLP. “She has exactly the right set of skills and experience to lead LAJC’s advocacy on behalf of the communities we serve. We looked at a wide pool of potential candidates, and Angela was the best of a very impressive field. I speak for the entire board when I say we are thrilled to know that Angela is at the helm of this vital institution at this particularly troubling time for Virginia.”

Ciolfi began working at LAJC in 2004 as a Powell Fellow, before serving as JustChildren Legal Director from 2010 to 2017 when she became Director of Litigation and Advocacy. During her tenure, Ciolfi has been a prolific and fierce advocate for justice working on and often leading many of LAJC’s signature campaigns and cases, including the Drive Down the Debt Campaign targeting Virginia’s driver’s punitive license suspension statute. She has also litigated significant cases in the Virginia Supreme Court and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. While leading the JustChildren Program, Ciolfi helped to secure and protect state funding for preschool and for positive behavioral supports. Her successful fight in 2012-14 to require public schools to publish suspension and expulsion data broken down by race, gender, and disability and roll back zero tolerance laws set the stage for much of LAJC’s school-to-prison pipeline work ever since. As Director of Litigation and Advocacy from 2017 to 2018, Ciolfi has worked to empower LAJC’s organizers and attorneys to take on high impact campaigns informed by and in partnership with community leaders.

Ciolfi was the recipient of the Oliver White Hill Award from the Virginia State Bar in 2003 and the Child Advocacy Award from the American Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Division in 2010. Ciolfi was also named the recipient of the 2017 Virginia Legal Aid Award by the Virginia State Bar Access to Legal Services Committee for her work advocating for children’s rights issues throughout the Commonwealth. She is a graduate of The College of William and Mary and University of Virginia School of Law. After law school, she clerked for U.S. District Judge Reginald C. Lindsay.

“I am honored by the trust that the Board has shown in me and deeply indebted to Mary Bauer and others for building such a powerful institution,” said Angela Ciolfi. “Every day our advocates fight to transform oppressive systems and build the power of under-resourced communities. I know that there is a lot more work for us to do in the struggle against poverty and for racial justice, but there is no fiercer group of advocates with whom to do it.”

Ciolfi will officially take the helm December 15, 2018.

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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, worker’s rights, 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.

Follow the Legal Aid Justice Center on Twitter @LegalAidJustice and on Facebook.

 

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contacts:      Rebecca Wolozin, (571) 373-0518
                  Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg, (434) 218-9376

FEDERAL COURT ALLOWS CHALLENGE TO GOVERNMENT POLICY USING DETAINED CHILDREN AS BAIT TO ARREST FAMILIES

ALEXANDRIA, VA (November 16, 2018) — Yesterday, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia denied the U.S. government’s motion to dismiss Legal Aid Justice Center’s lawsuit on behalf of detained immigrant children and their families, striking a blow to a new immigration policy that has kept thousands of children unnecessarily detained for months. The Court’s decision is a victory for immigrant children and their families in Virginia and across the country. 

This case is particularly significant, not only in Virginia, but nationally. Over 13,000 children are held by Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) under the policies challenged in this suit, hundreds of whom are in Virginia. Because the policies are federal policies implemented across the country, the outcome of this case will have a nationwide impact. 

Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC), together with the intellectual property law firm of Sterne, Kessler, Goldstein, and Fox, brought this first-of-its-kind class action lawsuit challenging the government’s recent policy of sharing sponsor information and information about sponsors’ household members with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). That policy has resulted in ICE arrests of family and friends that came forward to bring their children home.

“The Trump administration has been carrying out a backdoor family separation agenda, keeping immigrant children apart from their families and using children as bait to break up the very families they have traveled so far and risked so much to join,” said Becky Wolozin, lead counsel and attorney with LAJC’s Immigrant Advocacy Program. “This decision is a victory for immigrant children and families. The Court has said clearly that the government cannot run roughshod over the rights of these children and their loved ones.” 

The lawsuit stemmed from the experience of four children in ORR custody on Virginia who were held by the government for over five months while their relatives tried to bring them home. Three of the four children were finally reunified with their families – one just weeks before the Court’s order came down. The three children who have been reunified with their families have been dismissed from the case. One child remains in government custody, where he has been held apart from his adult sister for six months, after fleeing violence and neglect in his home country. 

“For years, ORR has neglected its obligations under the Administrative Procedure Act,” said Sterne Kessler Director Salvador Bezos, lead of the firm’s immigration-focused pro bono matters. “The Administrative Procedure Act provides essential protections against this kind of agency overreach. I am proud of my colleagues’ and LAJC’s efforts to force the government to meet its obligations to the children in its custody.”

“ORR is supposed to protect vulnerable immigrant children. Instead it is placing them in harm’s way under the guise of child welfare,” said Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg, Legal Director of LAJC’s Immigrant Advocacy Program. “Their policy and its enforcement undermine successfully placing children with their families and the vast surveillance actions are destabilizing immigrant communities.” 

In the November 15th ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Leonie Brinkema firmly upheld children’s right to liberty and the right to family unity for immigrant families. Judge Brinkema found that the children and their sponsors provided sufficient reason to suggest that their constitutional rights were violated, and that the government violated the Administrative Procedure Act when it enacted its ICE sharing policy earlier this year.  The case will now move forward as LAJC works to certify the class and the parties work to complete discovery. 

Read the legal ruling here

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Legal Aid Justice Center is a statewide Virginia nonprofit organization whose mission is to strengthen the voices of low-income communities and root out the inequities that keep people in poverty. We provide legal support to immigrant communities facing legal crises and use advocacy and impact litigation to fight back against ICE enforcement and detention abuses.  More information is available at http://www.justice4all.org/current-initiatives/fighting-family-separation/

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PRESS ADVISORY                              

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

Preliminary Injunction Hearing in Driver’s License Case:

Judge to hear arguments for and against order to DMV to immediately stop suspending driver’s licenses of those unable to pay court fees and fines while litigation proceeds.

WHAT:                Hearing on Plaintiffs’ Motion for a Preliminary Injunction
WHEN:               November 15, 2018 at 1:30 PM
WHERE:             Charlottesville Courthouse, U.S. District Court

Overview:
Stinnie v. Holcomb is a class action lawsuit, filed by Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC) and McGuireWoods LLP, challenging the constitutionality of Virginia’s statute automatically suspending the driver’s licenses of nearly one million Virginia drivers who cannot afford to pay court costs and fines. The case was originally dismissed at the Circuit Court, but it was revived by the Fourth Circuit this summer when the appeals court allowed plaintiffs to amend their complaint. When LAJC filed the amended complaint, they also asked the court to issue a preliminary injunction, which would have the effect of ordering the DMV Commissioner to stop suspending driver’s licenses for non-payment of court debt while the lawsuit is pending.  At the hearing on November 15th, Judge Moon will hear arguments for and against the preliminary injunction. 

National and Statewide Implications:

  • Virginia is one of 43 states that suspend driver’s licenses for non-payment of court costs and fines related to traffic and/or criminal offenses. Since Stinnie was originally filed in 2016, six more statewide lawsuits have been filed (or almost filed) in California, Tennessee, Michigan, Montana, Mississippi (settled pre-filing), and North Carolina, and advocates have won legislative reforms in many states, including California and, most recently, D.C.
  • If plaintiffs prevail, for the duration of the litigation, which could take many months, Virginia would cease to suspend driver’s licenses of those who are unable to pay their court fees and fines. A federal judge recently issued a statewide injunction against a similar enforcement scheme in Tennessee.
  • This will not impact the nearly one million Virginia drivers who, as of December 2017, 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, a license suspension 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. 

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, workers’ 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. 

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE                                                                                                                                      

CONTACT:
Amy Woolard
Attorney and Policy Coordinator, Legal Aid Justice Center
434-529-1846 | amy@justice4all.org

New Report: Virginia’s School Discipline Crisis—Racial Disparities Widened in 2016-17; Suspended Students Across the Commonwealth Received Inadequate (or No) Education While Out of School

Charlottesville, Virginia (October 25, 2018) – Virginia schools continued to use school exclusion as a consequence for student behavioral concerns at an alarming rate during the 2016-17 academic year—an ongoing crisis that harms Black students and students with disabilities most profoundly.   

A 2018 update to the Legal Aid Justice Center’s Suspended Progress report series reveals that, during the 2016-17 school year, Virginia schools issued over 127,800 out-of-school suspensions to over 73,000 students, marking an increase over the prior year in the number of students in the Commonwealth subjected to exclusionary discipline.

In this update to Suspended Progress, the Legal Aid Justice Center finds that:

  • Black students were suspended at rates 5 times higher than Hispanic and white students, a significantly wider gap over the prior year;
  • Students with disabilities were suspended at rates 3 times higher than that of non-disabled students;
  • Virginia schools continued to suspend very young students at an astonishing rate, issuing nearly 18,000 short-term suspensions and at least 111 long-term suspensions just to children in pre-k through 3rd grade—a marked increase over the 2015-16 year;
  • Once again, the vast majority of all suspensions were issued for minor offenses, with approximately two-thirds of all suspensions issued for behavior offenses like: possession of cell phones, minor insubordination, disrespect, and using inappropriate language; and
  • Students excluded from their home school—if they continue to receive education at all—are often funneled into inadequate alternative programs that operate without accountability to academic goals or the Commonwealth’s high educational standards.

“Too often in Virginia schools, we use ‘suspension’ and ‘accountability’ as synonyms,” said Amy Woolard, Legal Aid Justice Center attorney and author of the report. “When students exhibit behavioral issues, we can and should look to alternatives to school exclusion that can hold students accountable if needed, while also continuing their education and addressing underlying needs, such as physical and mental health supports, trauma-informed care, disability services, and mentoring.”

The report points to proven alternatives to school exclusion that keep students connected to academics and provide tailored interventions when needed. Those trauma-informed alternatives include restorative practices, multi-tiered systems of supports, and Social and Emotional Learning programs as positive steps local schools can implement in lieu of exclusion.

The Legal Aid Justice Center’s report provides policymakers with immediate steps to take during the 2019 General Assembly session to continue their work in pushing forward on positive reforms of the disciplinary system. It also offers local school boards and communities a framework for ensuring student codes of conduct promote positive school climate and keep students on track toward graduation—all of which, in turn, increases school safety for students and school staff alike.

“We must address our constitutional duty to provide a high-quality public education to all students, and particularly to Black students and students with disabilities, who have been bearing the devastating brunt of school exclusion practices for far too long,” said Woolard. “Our response to behavioral issues cannot continue to drive students out of the classroom and away from the positive connections and critical supports they need to thrive and successfully reach graduation.”

To read the report, visit: www.justice4all.org/suspension.

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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.

Follow the Legal Aid Justice Center on Twitter @LegalAidJustice and on Facebook.

 

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Contact:
Scott Simpson, scott@muslimadvocates.org
Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg, simon@justice4all.org
Nicole Vogt, nicole@npstrategygroup.com

Civil Rights Groups Settle Case Against Trump Administration’s Inhumane Family Separation Policies

Settlement Could Give Well Over 1,000 Parents Another Chance at Asylum

Washington, DC, September 12, 2018 – In accordance with a new agreement reached today in Dora v. Sessions and companion cases Ms. L v. ICE and M.M.M. v. Sessions – three legal actions that are challenging the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance and family-separation policies – the government has agreed that all parents still in the United States who underwent the asylum interview process after being forcibly separated from their children and subsequently had their claim rejected will now have a second chance to have their asylum request reviewed, including the opportunity to submit additional evidence and testimony.  Today’s agreement, if approved by the court, will provide much needed relief to these parents and their children and will ensure that their asylum claims are properly considered by federal officials.

According to Sirine Shebaya, senior staff attorney for Muslim Advocates, “Today’s agreement is a significant victory for parents who were denied a real chance at asylum. The parents in these lawsuits all came to the United States fleeing unspeakable violence and seeking shelter for themselves and their children. The government forcibly separated them from their children, causing them severe psychological trauma and denying them a meaningful opportunity to make their case for asylum. With this agreement, they will finally have a real chance to be heard and to secure safety and stability for themselves and their families.”

According to Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg, legal director of the Immigrant Advocacy Program at the Legal Aid Justice Center in Virginia, “Our government forcibly ripped children from the arms of asylum-seeking parents, and then asked them, debilitated by trauma, all by themselves, unrepresented by lawyers, to articulate complex legal claims without any support or accommodation.  With this settlement, those parents will now finally have a fair shot at winning protection in the United States.”

Dora v. Sessions was filed last month in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia by Muslim Advocates and Legal Aid Justice Center on behalf of 29 plaintiffs forcibly separated from their children under the Trump administration’s cruel and inhumane “zero tolerance” policy.  The complaint alleged that, because of the disabling trauma of family separation, parents were confused, disoriented, unable to focus on anything other than the whereabouts and well-being of their children, and unable to adequately articulate their experiences to the interviewing officers. As a result, the plaintiffs received negative credible fear determinations, and faced immediate deportation. The complaint raised claims under the Immigration and Nationality Act, the Rehabilitation Act, and the Due Process Clause of the U.S. Constitution’s Fifth Amendment.

A copy of the settlement can be found here: Agreement Dora v Sessions

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Muslim Advocates is a national legal advocacy and educational organization that works on the frontlines of civil rights to guarantee freedom and justice for Americans of all faiths.

Legal Aid Justice Center is a statewide Virginia nonprofit organization whose mission is to strengthen the voices of low-income communities and root out the inequities that keep people in poverty. We provide legal support to immigrant communities facing legal crises and use advocacy and impact litigation to fight back against ICE enforcement and detention abuses.  More information is available at http://www.justice4all.org/current-initiatives/fighting-family-separation/

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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.