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."

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  1. Driving is a privilege, and poor people generally aren’t privileged.

    1. check your privilege, Fist.

      1. Check your fist privilege!

  2. Calling this a debtors prison is hyperbolic, and I think it does a disservice to their argument.

    1. It does, actually. The real punishment for any traffic violation or minor infraction is virtually always some amount of jail time. You are given the option to pay the state to avoid the jail term, but that doesn’t change what the actual punishment would be if you did not give them the money.

      If I’m not mistaken, you can also be thrown in jail for private debts that are incurred because of the state taking up the mantle in those private matters; such as failure to pay alimony or child support. So, yeah, debtor prisons are still alive and doing very well in these modern times. People just choose to ignore them.

  3. I believe that in a lot of states driving is considered a privilege.

    1. A lot of states also consider ownership of certain plant products to be a felony.

    2. But it’s a common and universely popular privilege that shouldn’t come with practically insurmountable barriers to reinstatement if you make a mistake.

      I suspect VA might see their crazy laws as a revenue source, much like my state of PA sees its communist liquor store system as the same. That makes it harder to reform.

      1. hey, and we have a communist liquor store system too! Must be a thing with states that call themselves “commonwealths”

    3. We need to change the idea of driving being a ‘privilege’. It’s not a privilege, it’s a right. Hear me out:

      We have the right to free speech/press. That right is not restricted by the median used (television, traditional newspaper, Facebook, etc) but may be suppressed in limited cases.

      We also have the right to freely move about the country. The means of how we move about (walking, biking, driving, etc) cannot be restricted unless the reason is directly related to and narrowly defined. For instance, losing the right to drive is fine if the driver has shown dangerous driving behavior. But losing this right because you didn’t pay child support or fees is unconstitutional.

  4. Comey updates.
    The fax Hillary ordered the headers removed from were sent over an unsecure line. But Hillary claims she meant remove classified material and send it. So even though the classified material ended up sent anyway, Comey is going to take Hillary’s explanation at face value. We have a trend where she gets the benefit of the doubt throughout.

    Hillary’s lawyers did not have any security clearances to view the information they were sorting through. Comey says there is a lot of concern to that, but not criminal. Which doesn’t seem to make much sense. Hillary ordered them to go through that. How is that not intent? Now Comey says he doesn’t know if that was Hillary’s direction.

    Question finally posed to Comey in the most direct way possible because Comey wouldn’t admit they read those emails.
    Did Hillary give people without clearances access to classified information?
    Comey: Yes

    1. Hillary’s lawyers did not have any security clearances to view the information they were sorting through.


      So not only did she destroy evidence. She further compromised classified material in the process of doing so.

      1. She could never get a TS/SCI clearance with all of this and we’re going to give her the nuclear codes?

        I feel like I’m taking crazy pills.

    2. Besides that fact that the server, once it was used for state department business, became completely the business of the federal government. Nothing on that server should have been exempted from review.

      1. Comey really didn’t answer this, as I see it. He just said he didn’t have evidence to prove there was intent to obstruct justice. Which doesn’t seem to make any sense as no one else would have been given that discretion. And if those emails weren’t part of the subpoena process (which they were, but let’s entertain that) then why was the FBI trying to get those emails back from the devices? The whole argument ends up completely circular. The only thing that seems relevant is what the judge ordered.

        I didn’t catch the whole entire hearing. Maybe he said something else that made more sense, but I doubt it.

        1. I can’t think of any other person under a criminal investigation who could delete their records and get a pass from the FBI.

          1. Shit, they’re in the habit of grabbing entire server farms just to get at one account.

  5. Fuck the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse grovelling on the floor.
    Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I wield my boot and kick them out the door!”

  6. fucking DMV

    fuck that place

  7. I hate driving through Virginia. I also have some in-laws there, my wife’s shirttail ones. So that’s two reasons not to go to the state.

    1. Their traffic laws are barbaric. They haven’t changed since the 1920s. Any time you are given a ticket for going 80 or over, it is automatically reckless driving.

      1. our enforcement is barbaric, VA State Police sole purpose for existing is serving as revenue agents and they make no bones about it.

        1. Virginia and Louisiana both have in my experience the worst state troopers in America. And lets not forget radar detectors are illegal in Virginia. God that state sucks. Grant should have burned it down and salted the earth.

          1. The Florida Highway Patrol would like a word with you.

  8. Virginia is a fascist shithole. As much as Maryland sucks, Virginia is worse. I never understand when my rightwing friends choose to live there thinking it is somehow better than Maryland.

    1. Taxes, guns, and superior drivers

      1. wherever there is congestion in the passing lane you’ll nearly always find a MD driver as the root cause.

        1. Maryland drivers are the worst – right down there with Florida and West Virginia drivers, in my experience. I’ve noticed a definite deterioration in the driving skills of my fellow Virginians as well over the last couple decades, but we have a ways to go before we suck as much as Maryland.

          1. The drivers in the entire DC area suck. I honestly don’t notice any difference when I go to Virginia. The entire city is full of self important assholes who express that when they drive.

            1. Yeah… i highly recommend not ever being in the DC area for any reason.

            2. people just aren’t aware, they literally wouldn’t be able to find work everyday if it weren’t for their gps apps.

              1. It’s getting to be like that everywhere.

      2. The gun laws are not that bad. And the taxes in Virginia are just as bad. Virginia’s taxes are not any cheaper. Virginia has that bullshit personal property tax.

        And the traffic in NOVA is much worse than it is in Maryland. i would take 270 at its worst over I 95 or 66 any day. The entire state just sucks. It is this horrible combination of the worst sort of Washington douche bags with the worst sort of hillbilly redneck fascism.

        1. Don’t confuse the hellhole that is NOVA with the rest of the state.

          1. NOVA needs to be nuked from orbit.

            1. Alexandria has it’s merits, the people that reside there non withstanding. Arlington/Fairfax not so much, as a resident of Arlington I would not hesitate to be in the affirmative with you on that.

              1. The place could be nice if you could just do something about the people.

          2. If I could change one thing about Virginia, it would be to evict Fairfax, Prince William, and Lorton counties from our borders. They’d be happier as a part of the People’s Democratic Republic of Maryland anyway.

            Richmond has its drawbacks, but you’d have to at least triple my salary to ever get me to consider moving north of Fredericksburg….and even then my standard of living probably wouldn’t improve all that much since real estate is more than twice as expensive up there.

            And yeah, so many times when traffic is barely crawling along on 64 west at the end of the day, there’s some asshole with Maryland plates puttering along at 45 mph in the left lane for no reason whatsoever.

        2. i would take 270 at its worst over I 95 or 66

          c’mon now I know your talking out of your ass. I’ll give you our traffic sucks worse overall but you can’t tell me that that 270 is better than either of those roads. I would put rush hour on the 270 up against anywhere. Also this state doesn’t have Baltimore in it so we got that going for it.

          1. 270 is at least drivable outside of rush hour. You can’t get up or down 95 on a Saturday afternoon.

        3. It is this horrible combination of the worst sort of Washington douche bags with the worst sort of hillbilly redneck fascism.

          That’s not true for all of Virginia! For instance, here in Hampton Roads, there are also the dumbass 19-year-old Navy sailors tear-assing around residential streets in their riced out Civics. Usually, they get drunk enough first to forget about their enormous wives who haven’t been not-pregnant since prom night.

  9. The obvious solution is to eliminate driver’s licenses.

    1. Yes. That would be a great start.

    2. That doesn’t make sense. Then how would we be able to control the movement of the populace?

    3. But..but…think of the children!

      The government has a compelling interest in keeping us all say, otherwise who would pay their taxes….

  10. Psh, you think anyone cares about this when there’s already a very real and very heavy actual debtors prison? You know that the price of committing minor traffic violations is jail with the option to pay off the police to let you out of the jail time. I’m not talking about bribes either, this is America. The price tag is right there on the ticket itself. That’s the end result of a police force that doubles as a revenue generator.

  11. So it IS possible to arrest people for reckless driving without a breathalyzer. Interesting.

  12. If the stop as you have described it here turns out to be an accurate account, I believe you will see the NRA weigh in. But like the mainstream media you have jumped the gun.

    While livestreaming is probably good for birthday parties and other things, it’s not so good at a crime scene. It gets interpreted instantly and the echo chamber echoes. 5 men in Dallas are dead, in part, because of it.

    Mr. Castile may be entirely innocent. But according to other, also premature, reports, the police were seeking an armed robbery suspect and Mr. Castile fit the description. While he was almost certainly not the perpetrator, the cops were doing their job and were justifiably on edge. Armed robbery. Get it?

    The account you have stated as true here is not necessarily so. Other, unverified, accounts also say that Mr. Castile was NOT a permit holder and had the gun in sight of the officer. That is risking being shot if true. Hands on the wheel at 11 and 1 and wait for instructions. Black or white.

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