Ending driver’s license suspension for court debt
Six years ago, a Charlottesville jail superintendent brought a serious problem to the local reentry council: the jail was full of people locked up just for driving on a suspended license. What’s worse, they lost their licenses due to criminal/traffic court debt they just couldn’t pay. To tackle the problem, LAJC recruited pro bono attorneys to help people get their licenses back. It did not take long to realize that trying to help people one-by-one was not working. There were just too many people and too many barriers.
Through public records requests, we discovered that nearly one million driver’s licenses were suspended by the state for court debt, and over 600,000 of them were suspended solely for that reason. We also discovered that black people were disproportionately hurt by both license suspension and driving while suspended.
So, we launched our “Drive Down the Debt” campaign. We started by convincing the General Assembly to pass a law requiring courts to publish their payment plan policies. This first step allowed legislators—and the Virginia Supreme Court—to see how most courts’ often punitive one-size-fits-all payment policies failed to take financial hardship into account. Our critique led to new rules making it easier for people to get on payment plans. But we didn’t stop there. Realizing that Virginia was not alone, we published the first national report finding that 43 states suspended licenses for unpaid court debt.
Throughout our work, we met people heroically battling against impossible odds—caught in a cycle of debt, license suspension, job loss, incarceration, and further debt: A mom of two who lost her ability to drive to her job as an in-home care aide, and with that, her primary source of income. A dad who had fewer job options, and who didn’t have time, using public transit, to hold down a second job to uplift his family. A mom who was told she needed to appear in-person in order to get on a payment plan, even though she couldn’t drive legally. They were fighters, and they rose to the challenge as partners with us in changing the system.
Four years ago this week—July 6, 2016—we filed Stinnie v. Holcomb, a lawsuit challenging Virginia’s court debt suspension on the grounds that it violated basic constitutional guarantees of due process and equal protection. In late December 2018, the court held that the law likely violated the Constitution and ordered Virginia to stop enforcing the law against our clients. Alongside the litigation, we built a legislative campaign that grew into a large bipartisan coalition. As the case progressed, our clients also brought their stories to halls of the General Assembly and this, combined with the pressure from the federal court injunction, helped motivate policymakers toward action. In April 2019, the Governor stepped up and passed a budget amendment to halt the practice in the Commonwealth, but it was only a temporary reprieve. The legislature needed to fully end the law.
Then during the 2020 legislative session, after six years of research and individual casework, five years of legislative and administrative advocacy, four years of litigation, a critical preliminary injunction, and a temporary fix through an amendment to Virginia’s budget, we arrived at full repeal of this harmful, unconstitutional law by an overwhelming vote in both chambers of the legislature.
On July 1, 2020, quietly alongside the hundreds of other laws passed the Virginia General Assembly this last legislative session, the court debt suspension law ceased to exist. Virginians will no longer be suspended for being poor and can have a true opportunity to restore their lives from the harms that have flowed from that broken policy. We knew the journey would be long, but we are proud to have reached this anniversary and changed Virginia—and the lives of hundreds of thousands of families—for the better.
We thank all who made July 1 possible, from pro bono partners like McGuire Woods, to bold policymakers and steadfast coalition partners like the Virginia Poverty Law Center and Americans for Prosperity. But we especially thank Damian Stinnie, who let us tell his story over and over and gave his name to the litigation; Adrainne Johnson, who testified so forcefully at the preliminary injunction hearing; Brianna Morgan, who spoke about her experience and her hope for a better future; and all the other clients who sat for depositions and let lawyers for the state interrogate their finances and question the strategies they have used to survive this brutal law and provide for their families. And finally, we salute the hard work and perseverance of the hundreds of thousands of people per year who have managed to take care of themselves and their families, despite the license suspension trap.