Criminal Justice

Virginia May Reinstate Licenses for Drivers with Unpaid Court Fees

Gov. Ralph Northam pushes for reform.


Christian Gooden/MCT/Newscom

After Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam's now-infamous blackface scandal, the embattled leader vowed to focus on inequality. At least one item in his recent budget proposal—a measure to end driver's license suspensions for unpaid court fines and fees—would help him make good on that promise.

If the amendment makes it through the state legislature, 627,000 Virginians will regain the right to drive.

"Having a driver's license is essential to a person's ability to maintain a job and provide for their families," he said Tuesday at a news conference. "It is especially pertinent to those that live in rural Virginia because we don't have public transportation that is adequate to get to employment."

Northam is correct. Such policies prevent offenders who have already served their time from effectively reentering society, trapping them in a cycle of poverty and unemployment that makes it difficult to pay rent, much less court fees.

A report by the Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area found that in California, license suspension rates for missed court fees and traffic debts are "directly correlated" with poverty and race. That should come as no surprise: Those who start with little will be hard-pressed to bounce back if the state blocks off their ability to work.

San Francisco's Bay View/Hunter's Point neighborhood is a microcosm of the phenomenon. With a 25.8 percent poverty rate and a 35.8 percent concentration of black tenants—the highest in the city—residents reported a 6.7 percent license suspension rate, more than three times the average across California.

What's more, police officers can and do issue arrest warrants for those who fail to pay court-associated fines, disrupting their lives and compounding their debts. "Where the underlying issue is debt collection rather than public safety, it is counterproductive to divert public safety resources to these types of arrests," the researchers conclude.

A driver's license isn't just frequently necessary to get to and from work: As The Atlantic's Alana Semuels points out, it's often a prerequisite to being hired in the first place. Electricians and plumbers need to visit various clients; many construction workers have to drive a bulldozer on-site. These are the very jobs that can lift a person into the middle class, as they typically pay well above the minimum wage.

And suspended licenses affect not just employment but the most basic family needs, such as caring for a sick child. Just ask Brianna Morgan, a mother in Virginia whose license was suspended over an outstanding court fine. "A six-minute drive to my son's school if he had an asthma attack turned into a 30-minute ride on the city bus," she tells The Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Forty-one states currently suspend licenses for unpaid debts. But Virginia is one of a growing number—like Ohio and Tennessee—where federal judges and lawmakers of both major parties are beginning the recognize the counterproductive nature of such restrictions.

"Taking an individual's driver's license away to try to make her more likely to pay a fine is not using a shotgun to do the job of a rifle: it is using a shotgun to treat a broken arm," U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger wrote as she ruled a Tennessee license suspension provision unconstitutional. "There is no rational basis for that."

NEXT: Did We Overestimate the Benefits of Police Body Cameras?

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  1. It is good to see that Governor Coonman cares about the little guy.

    1. Just because he mostly does bad things doesn’t mean we can’t acknowledge when he does something good.

      1. Governor Coonman did the right thing here.

        1. It’s amazing what you can get away with when you’re a D and the only person who would replace you is an R.

          1. Virginia should also be restoring driver’s licenses to non-criminals who lost their driving privileges over unpaid child support, not just criminals who failed to pay fines. Virginia suspends driver’s licenses over unpaid child support, even though most are simply unable to pay the full amount of child support ordered.

            On December 10, a New Jersey judge ruled that it was a violation of due process, to suspend driver’s licenses for child support without giving parents a meaningful opportunity to show that they are unable to pay, in her ruling in Kavadas v. Martinez.

            Most parents with suspended driver’s licenses over child support are unable to pay in full. The Urban Institute found that the most common reason California parents are behind on child support is because the child support obligation was set too high to begin with. Even when the child support obligation wasn’t set too high to begin with, it often becomes too high to pay, when the parent loses his or her job. Nationally, the Urban Institute has estimated that only four percent of parents manage to get their monthly child support payment reduced when they lose their job.

            On March 4, Equal Justice Under Law sued the state of Missouri for suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid child support, without giving parents a meaningful ability to show they are simply unable to pay in Wright v. Family Support Division. See “Lawsuit challenges arbitrary drivers license suspensions for those who can’t pay child support.”

    2. Given that Ralph Northam graduated from a majority black high school, it seems likely that he got the nickname “Coonman” because “Niggerlover” was considered crass by even 1970s VMI students.

  2. Whatever happened to garnishing wages? I understand some people work under the table or not at all but most have some sort of reported income…

  3. “license suspension rates for missed court fees and traffic debts are “directly correlated” with poverty and race. That should come as no surprise: Those who start with little will be hard-pressed to bounce back if the state blocks off their ability to work.”

    Stop right there, correlation fallacy! Correlations indicate the strength of a relationship, NOT the direction. You can’t draw your conclusion any more than I can say poor, non-white people are more likely to commit offenses that result in license suspension, at least at first glance. In actuality, there are a lot of studies proving that the poor and non-whites commit such offenses at higher rates. So you’re doubly wrong.

    1. The best machine operator I ever had working for me was one of these guys. He was poor because he couldn’t keep his personal life straight, was always in trouble with the law (mostly drunk in public), and because he could rarely drag himself in on Mondays, and he always wanted to dash off for the weekend as soon as he saw his Friday paycheck. If he showed up 5 days a week, he made almost the money I did, but he was always broke, living paycheck to paycheck, had payday loans, and couldn’t keep a license. Finally, I put my foot down and gave him “extra days off” for not making it in. After tat, he got his life (mostly) straight,

  4. In the bad old days, if you had unpaid fines (or for that matter any unpaid debt) you’d be sent to prison until you could pay (which was tough to do in prison).

    That was a Bad Thing.

    Nowadays, when the government has so many ways of picking the citizen’s pocket with garnishment and so forth, why even bother with license suspension – that seems like overkill and impairs the person’s ability to drive to work and pay off the debt.

    1. Heck, at the risk of sounding sadistic, why not transfer the debt to the tax-collector’s office – they have all sorts of tools to separate people from their money and assets, and if it’s OK to do this to people who simply didn’t pay taxes, why not for people who owe the govt money because they committed crimes?

      I know this idea isn’t well thought out so I could very well be wrong, but I’d like to know why it’s wrong before I totally take it back.

      1. why not transfer the debt to the tax-collector’s office

        That’s what’s done with some things, IINM. I don’t see why it can’t be done with parking tickets and such.

  5. “construction workers have to drive a bulldozer on-site.”

    It should be noted here that if they aren’t driving the bulldozer on public roads, a driver’s license is not necessary.

    Anyone, even kid not old enough to get a license can legally drive on private property (given they have the owners permission).

    1. In theory, sure, and I even had a job one time running a front end loader without a DL. But, those days are over, because the insurance companies demand that all operators have a DL.

  6. I’m still torn on this stuff. I agree about the consequences compounding court fines. But if you take a class of laws or infractions and make them toothless, then why have the laws in the first place?

    1. So the rich will pay their fair share, of course.

    2. Exactly – so let’s get rid of those laws.

      Once we’re down to only having real laws then this sort of enforcement will be justifiable.

  7. . . . many construction workers have to drive a bulldozer on-site.

    Wow. Just . . . wow.

    1. Heavy equipment operation probably doesn’t rise to even 1 out of every 20 construction workers.

    2. Bulldozers specifically will be a tiny, tiny percentage of that and only during a specific phase of construction.

    Now, maybe you’re confusing bobcats (front-loaders) with bulldozers – you don’t need a license for those though. And really, if the boss wanted, he could tell Joe to just hop into the bulldozer and go to town because you don’t need a license to operate motor vehicles off public highways.

    Sure, to be a professional HEO you need a CDL, but that’s also a dude who can operate multiple types of HE *and* self-transport them across public highways.

    1. I doubt a guy who goes by Billy Binion has a lot of xp in the trades. Sounds like a Stan Lee character who works at The Daily Bugle.

  8. Oh, goody. Folks who can’t drive will be allowed back on the road.

    What could possibly go wrong?

    1. READ THE _FINE_ ARTICLE! Folks who can drive are losing their licenses for reasons unrelated to their driving.

  9. I’m sorry for being mean

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  11. There is a difference between a court-ordered fine, and court-ordered restitution to some injured party. I support suspension of voting rights until all obligations to victims are fulfilled.

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