Poverty

A Year After Reforms, Virginia Still Suspends Nearly 1 Million Driver's Licenses For Court Debts

That's one out of every six licensed drivers in the state.

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Last February, the Virginia court system announced big changes to its rules to keep poor residents from having their driver's licenses suspended simply because of their inability to pay court fines and fines. But a year later, nearly 1 million Virginians—one out of every six licensed drivers in the state—still have suspended licenses for unpaid court debts, according to a new report released Wednesday.

"It appears that these reforms have done little, if anything, to stem the breathtaking current of Virginians losing their licenses," the report by the Legal Aid Justice Center, a Virginia-based legal aid group, concludes.

The Legal Aid Justice Center found that, as of December 2017, nearly one million Virginians had their driver's licenses suspended at least in part due to court debt, and nearly two-thirds of those—638,003—were suspended solely for unpaid court debts.

Civil liberties groups argue that using license suspensions to punish people for unpaid court debts is both unfair and illogical: It deprives them of the means to get to work to pay off their debt and forces many to make the choice between losing their jobs or driving on a suspended license, which carries another stiff fine.

The Legal Aid Justice Center filed a federal class-action lawsuit last year arguing Virginia's policy was unconstitutional. That suit was dismissed on procedural grounds, but the U.S. district court judge in the case wrote that the state's practice of suspending licenses without determining ability to pay "may very well violate Plaintiffs' constitutional rights to due process and equal protection."

Robert Taylor, a 28-year-old Virginia resident whose license had been suspended, told Reason in an interview last year that he was buried under a small mountain of debt from repeated fines, unemployed, and unable to find a new job because of his lack of mobility.

"It's kind of like my feet are cut off," Taylor said. "I can't get anywhere. I want a job. I'll see a job, and when I find one I'm qualified for—I know I could run that store so well—but I can't get to it. Public transportation just isn't there. The bus will bring you in, but it won't take you back out. The only way to do it is to hopefully know someone who will give you a ride. So many of my friends have gotten traffic tickets that they've moved closer to town."

In response to growing criticism, the Virginia Supreme Court announced that it would require lower courts to offer deferred or installment payment plans to defendants who couldn't afford imposed fines and fees.

Wednesday's report says, though, that its review of 116 general district courts found that "not one gives any indication of how it evaluates ability to pay, and correspondingly, the inability to pay."

"Most alarmingly, significant numbers of courts fail to consider debtors' financial situations or provide low-income debtors with alternatives to rigid payment plan terms," the report continues. "The results can be devastating for individuals and their families forced to pay beyond their abilities."

Virginia is not the only state in which fines from small infractions have left large numbers of people unable to drive legally. At least seven other states suspend licenses for unpaid court debts, a 2010 Brennan Center report found. California has suspended more than 4 million licenses for unpaid fines, according to a 2015 report by the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area.

In December, a federal judge ruled that Michigan's driver's license suspension policy likely violated due process and enjoined the state from enforcing it. And last October, a federal judge reinstated the licenses of two Tennessee residents who are part of a class action lawsuit challenging the state's policies.

Since the Justice Department released a 2015 report on Ferguson, Missouri's rapacious use of fines and fees as a revenue source, the issue has been in the national spotlight. In a 2015 "dear colleague" letter, Vanita Gupta, the former head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, wrote that "state and local courts are encouraged to avoid suspending driver's licenses as a debt collection tool, reserving suspension for cases in which it would increase public safety."

"Research has consistently found that having a valid driver's license can be crucial to individuals' ability to maintain a job, pursue educational opportunities, and care for families," Gupta wrote. "At the same time, suspending defendants' licenses decreases the likelihood that defendants will resolve pending cases and outstanding court debts, both by jeopardizing their employment and by making it more difficult to travel to court, and results in more unlicensed driving."

The Justice Department under the Trump administration has since rescinded that guidance.

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  1. In response to growing criticism, the Virginia Supreme Court announced that it would require lower courts to offer deferred or installment payment plans to defendants who couldn’t afford imposed fines and fees.

    Still gotta make rent off the citizens, though.

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  2. Makes sense when you realize that government mandating you have a license to drive has nothing to do with your satisfactory ability to drive.

    Its a means to a national ID card and having biometric data on most Americans.

    1. “Research has consistently found that having a valid driver’s license can be crucial to individuals’ ability to maintain a job, pursue educational opportunities, and care for families,”

      But god forbid you ask anyone to show an ID, like say, a valid driver’s license, before they vote.

      1. What, a fishing license isn’t good enough for you?

      2. Excellent point. Can these folks still vote in their state if they lose their drivers license? If states tie the ability to vote to a license that can be yanked for failure to pay a fine, does that effectively set up a poll tax?

  3. “It appears that these reforms have done little, if anything, to stem the breathtaking current of Virginians losing their licenses,” the report by the Legal Aid Justice Center, a Virginia-based legal aid group, concludes.

    Is there any analysis as to WHY the much ballyhooed reforms utterly failed?

    1. This was my question as well. So, like, the courts just said ‘fuck the law’ or what? Will heads roll?

      Just kidding. Of course they said ‘fuck the law’ and of course heads will not roll.

  4. I never did like commonwealth states. So let’s see… courts [and lawyers] want to get peoples attention, and bring them back to process by removing them from the ability to hold a job. That should work swell: can’t pay either the bill or the lawyer to fight it, and things like child support can get turned from an intermittent or one-time problem into a permanent one. Can a court sanction itself I wonder? And how to remove itself from process in the “best interest” of children? Simple recusal won’t work when it’s the system gone bad. Whatever happened to simple liens?
    My word… is the Virginia legislature a moron bomb disguised as humanoid? The EEG for Virginia does not look good.

  5. Once you’re in the system they milk you for every drop of blood they can get.

  6. Are these suspended DLs still valid for voting?

    If 1/6 of all drivers are suspended, that suggests that for the bottom quintile it’s probably more like 5/6.

    1. Wondering how many are newly suspended annually, and how many people are able to pay, cause it seems like they might have too many people writing tickets.

  7. Land of the free my ass.

  8. Well, we still allow the fiction that driving is a privilege, not a right, so – – – – –

  9. “forces many to make the choice between losing their jobs or driving on a suspended license, which carries another stiff fine.

    Feature, not a bug.

  10. Something I was wondering is… how is it possible that 1/6th of the state of Virginia have to go to court in the first place? What exactly are people doing there? This is mind boggling to me in the first place.

    How do you compel someone to pay a fine when you have limited ways to compel them to pay a fine? Hope sooner or later they pay their fine for speeding or whatever it was? I understand the impetus behind suspending a license, but it is true it pretty much destroys the ability for someone to repay the fine. What is the solution here?

    1. A quick trip to Google search tells me that VA has a voter ID law. You’re required to have a “valid” license to vote. I couldn’t find confirmation (in my short search) as to whether a suspended license is considered “valid.” However, a license less than 12 months expired is “valid” for voting. (Again, nothing about suspended.)

      I’d be curious to see a race and political party breakdown of the 1/6th of Virginians with a suspended license.

  11. Make no mistake about it, reforms such as these are made with the intent of targeting and imprisoning the poor. The US has been the most successful country in the history of the world at incarcerating their poor and indigent. Everybody knows that people still drive after their license is suspended, and that catching them doing so is an excellent opportunity to either force them to pay you big bucks or to lock up those who are unable. Win-win for the state and its supporters.

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