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Virginia Looking to Expel License Suspension Policy

By: Tierney Brannigan January 10, 2017
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A controversial policy, which has resulted in accusations of unfair treatment towards hundreds of thousands of low-income residents, is getting a second look from Virginia lawmakers early next year.

 The policy in question creates a whirlpool of fines and jail time for VA residents who simply don’t have the means to make payments on even the smallest of traffic violations, and lose their driving privileges because of it.

Earlier this month, the Virginia General Assembly wrote a bill that calls for all VA courts to allow people with traffic citations the option of petitioning for deferred payments and/or community service. Currently, Virginia residents’ driver’s licenses are automatically suspended if they can’t pay their traffic ticket on time, without a court hearing. The General Assembly will officially present and vote on the bill this month.

The proposed amendments have been a long time coming. Just last year, 1 in 6 Virginians had suspended licenses because they couldn’t pay their traffic and court fines on time; that’s about 900,000 people who lost their right to drive in the state.

Without the right to drive, VA residents have to either rely entirely on public transportation or make the risky (and illegal) decision to drive with a suspended license. For a majority of people, public transport isn’t a viable option; trying to plan occupational, educational, and personal schedules around a bus route presents a significant amount of difficulty.

Unfortunately, Murphy’s law (and the actual law) will often catch up to residents who decide to drive with a suspended license, and they’re faced with yet another unaffordable citation. Things would be much different for the nearly 1 million Virginians with suspended licenses if they had more cash to spare.

The disparity of the circumstances between those who can and cannot afford Virginia traffic fines has become such a glaring matter that a class-action lawsuit was filed against Richard Holcomb, the Commissioner of the VA Department of Motor Vehicles, alleging that the agency didn’t give enough options to those who struggled with the fines.

“A driver’s license is often essential to a person’s well-being,” the lawsuit reads. “Virginia officials unconstitutionally deprive people of this important interest by automatically suspending the driver’s licenses of those who fail to pay court fines or fees. . .without assessing whether the failure to pay was willful or the result of a defendant’s inability to pay.”

Currently, Virginia automatically suspends your license if you don’t pay your traffic fines on time, without allowing for a court appearance to plead your case. The lawsuit argues this process not only violates Virginia law but unfairly denies people with lower incomes the right to “due process of law,” which is guaranteed in the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution.

“Supreme Court law makes two things really clear,” Leslie Kendrick, a lawyer working on behalf of the VA citizens, said. “First, a driver’s license is a protected property interest that can’t be suspended without notice and a hearing. The second is it offends due process and equal protection to impose punishments on people simply because they are unable to pay the fines and costs imposed on them.”

In a memorandum, the Virginia DMV defended the policy, referencing clear-cut litigation as an answer to the prosecution’s mounting case.

“Under Virginia’s statutory scheme, any individual who fails to pay court-imposed fines and costs will have his driver’s license suspended, regardless of income, race, gender, nationality, or other trait,” the memorandum stated. “For this reason, Virginia’s statutes do not provide dissimilar treatment to equally-situated individuals.”

But the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) disagreed when they recently weighed in on the lawsuit, kicking the stilts from under the VA DMV’s argument with a brief supporting the Legal Aid Justice Center in the Stinnie vs. Holcomb lawsuit.

“This brief advances the department’s robust efforts to prevent unlawful practices that punish poverty at every stage of the justice system and that trap vulnerable residents in cycles of debt from court fines and fees,” Vanita Gupta, head of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, said.

Thanks to the snowball of exposure and support behind the Stinnie vs. Holcomb lawsuit, there are sightings of change on the horizon for the VA license suspension policy. We won’t know for certain until early this year, but for now, a renewed focus on the Constitution and human rights looks to get low-income Virginians back on the road.

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