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."