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Virginia General Assembly May Scrap Policy Of Suspending Driver’s Licenses For Non-Payment

General Assembly

More than half a million Virginians have suspended licenses for not paying their court fines and fees. It’s a Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles policy that critics say is unconstitutional. Now a push to roll back that rule this General Assembly session is gaining ground.

Virginians can be assessed court fines and fees for something as small as a parking violation. But the consequence for failure to pay is steep; an automatic driver’s license suspension.

“I sit in court and I see all of the time people [who] are at or below the poverty level get a traffic ticket and their license is suspended if they miss one payment,” said State Senator Bill Stanley (R-Franklin County).  “They’re not given notice. They’re not brought back to court. It’s just suspended.”

Stanley, who is also a lawyer in Franklin County is backing a bill to end the policy. It passed unanimously out of a Senate Courts of Justice Committee on Monday.

According to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles 1,301,548 people in Virginia have suspended driver’s licences. And about half of them are suspended because they can’t pay or refuse to pay their court fines and fees.

Critics say this is jamming up the court system and ruining lives.

“A driver’s license isn’t just a convenience, it’s a necessity,” said Amy Woolard, policy coordinator for Legal Aid Justice Center. The organization represents low-income Virginians.

“We have very few areas of the state with reliable public transportation that can really meet all of people’s needs.”

So Woolard said, she has clients who just don’t drive.

“Or who do and because they must drive, are accruing driving on suspended license charges,” she said.

In Virginia, three of those charges nets a mandatory 10-day jail sentence.

“Which is, in essence, a debtors prison,” Woolard said.

In a recent visit to the Chesterfield County Jail, everyone in the women’s unit tells a similar story.

“They expected me to go to probation. They expected me pay these fines or or it’s going to be suspended again, but I can’t get to work because I can’t drive,” said inmate Tessa Pierotti, describing her tangled mess of legal problems. “Then I finally got it back after like 9 months, and I missed one payment plan so they resuspended it.”

Some inmates said they owe as much as $25,000.

Financial impact

While the bill has bipartisan support in the General Assembly, not everyone thinks it’s a good idea. Augusta Commonwealth’s Attorney Timothy Martin said suspending licenses is the only way to force people to pay fines and fees, which help pay for day-to-day court operations.  

“The people who have committed the offenses won’t pay anymore and the end result will be that it will shift the burden to the taxpayer,” he said.

But Jacob Fish with the libertarian advocacy group Americans for Prosperity

said the purpose of fines and fees shouldn’t be to generate revenue.

“This is a practice that hurts individuals,” Fish said. “It prevents them from being able to work. It prevents them from being able to reenter society. Whatever tiny cost there might be on the coffers I think is outweighed by the impact we can really have to help them fulfill their potential and become functioning members again.”

The issue is a priority for Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, who condemned the suspensions in his address to the state legislature earlier this month.

“We shouldn’t be punishing people for being poor,” he said.

Northam included money in his proposed budget to offset some financial losses to the state’s Trauma Center Fund.

As the legislation advances in the General Assembly, a lawsuit challenging the policy is moving through the courts. Last month, a Federal judge in Charlottesville granted a preliminary injunction to stop the DMV from enforcing the policy, but only against the five plaintiffs involved in the suit.

This might give lawmakers a push to get out ahead of the courts and set policy themselves.