Class Action Lawsuit over Automatic Driver's License Suspensions in Virginia

Virginia accused of having a "debtors prison" of its own


Fairfax County

A class action lawsuit launched in Virginia challenges the state's policy of automatically suspending the driver's licenses of people who fail to pay state fines and fees. The lawsuit, filed by the Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC) on behalf of four defendants it describes as indigent, argues that the Virginia policy unfairly targets the poor, since most people pay their fines and court fees if they are able to, and Virginia does not attempt to determine why a fine was not paid before suspending a victim's driver's license and thus making it even more difficult for them to earn the money needed to get out of debt with the state.

In its complaint, LAJC called the policy an "unconstitutional scheme that unfairly punishes the poor." According to LAJC, more than a million Virginians have a suspended driver's license for failure to pay a fine or fee.

Last summer, the Judicial Council of Virginia, a judiciary policy oversight body, recommended making it easier for poor people to pay off their fines and court fees but, according to an LAJC analysis released in May, the majority of general district courts in Virginia ignored those recommendations, leading LAJC to file their lawsuit this week.

"Driver's licenses supension is Virginia's form of a debtors' prison," LAJC attorney Angela Ciofli said in the center's release about the lawsuit. "Many areas of the state provide no reliable public transportation, effectivelyt leaving people confined to their homes or forcing them to risk jail time by driving on suspended licenses." The lawsuit cites a Brookings Institution study (PDF) that found less than 30 percent of Richmond jobs were reachable by public transportation within 90 minutes.

According to LAJC, in Virginia it's "particularly difficult for debtors to have their licenses reinstated." It notes a conviction of reckless driving comes with a six-month suspension. It can also come with a $2,500 fine and up to a year in jail, as one Jalopnik writer test driving a Camaro ZL1 too fast found out. He spent three days in jail for reckless driving. And the driver's license suspensions become indefinite when fines and fees aren't paid. In the 2015 fiscal year, according to LAJC, more than 360,000 drivers licenses were suspended due to unpaid fines, with nearly 40 percent for "offenses unrelated to driving." LAJC also adds that court costs have ballooned. Misdemanor and traffic violations came with $20 court fees in 1989, according to LAJC, but now "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 attorney appointed by the state to represent people who are too poor to afford one."

A couple of months ago, in fact, my wife was pulled over in Virginia while driving with her sister and baby niece. She was cited with reckless driving for going 15 miles an hour over the speed limit while moving into the right lane. It was a $250 ticket. Although she does not live in Virginia, the state threatened her with suspension of her license for failure to pay. At least she wasn't sent to jail.

The lawsuit was filed against the commissioner of the Department of Motor Vehicles, and seeks an injunction against the practice of automatically suspending drivers' licenses, calling for a system that "properly assesses drivers' ability to pay court debt" instead. That particular policy prescription seems like it would end with the state even more involved in the lives of poor people, now meddling in their finances to assess how to treat them. Better to fight back against increased fines and fees and, just as importantly, the increase of laws that permit the state to treat its residents like revenue streams and trapping them in cycles of debt in the first place. Petty law enforcement by its nature harms the poor and marginalized, with police killings like those of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile only the most extreme manifestation of that systemic harm.

The DMV directed questions about the lawsuit to the Attorney General's office, which told Reason it would "closely review the complaint with our client agencies and respond appropriately."