Legal Aid Group Calls Suspending Drivers Licenses for Unpaid Fees ‘A Form of Debtors’ Prison’

Joe Setyon | August 11, 2016 | 2:58pm EDT
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Traffic stop in Fairfax County, Virginia. (Fairfax County Police Dept.)


( – The Virginia-based Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC) claims that the commonwealth’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) has created “a form of debtors’ prison” by suspending the drivers licenses of low-income residents who are unable to pay court costs and fines.

“Driver’s license suspension is Virginia’s form of a debtors’ prison,” said LAJC legal director Angela Ciofi in a press release announcing a lawsuit the group filed July 6 against the DMV, which claims that “nearly 1 million Virginia drivers currently have suspended licenses for failure to pay court costs and fines.”

People who have to drive to work are forced to either give up their jobs or drive with a revoked license, which can lead to even more fines and possibly jail time, Ciofi pointed out.

Driving on a suspended license in Virginia is a criminal offense punishable by up to 12 months in jail and a $2,500 fine.

According to the Virginia DMV, reinstatement fees for driver’s licenses range from $145 to $220, not including the court fines associated with the original offenses.

“Many areas of the state provide no reliable public transportation, effectively leaving people confined to their homes or forcing them to risk jail time by driving on suspended licenses,” Ciofi said.

LAJC’s class-action lawsuit accuses Virginia DMV Commissioner Richard Holcomb of failing to “provide basic protections afforded by the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the United States Constitution” before suspending the licenses of four “indigent Virginia residents who have suffered indefinite suspension of their driver’s licenses for failure to pay court costs and fines that they could not afford.”

Each plaintiff was fined by at least one court, and when they did not pay in full, their licenses were suspended. Lacking the money to reinstate their licenses or pay back the courts, the plaintiffs continued driving, and were all convicted of driving with a suspended or revoked license.

LAJC’s lawsuit calls for the DMV to stop suspending the licenses of poor drivers “until Virginia implements a system that properly assesses drivers’ ability to pay court debt.”

It also wants the DMV to “reinstate the licenses of all drivers who were penalized for inability to pay.”

The lawsuit cites data from the Brookings Institution shows that in the Virginia Beach-Norfolk-Newport News metro area, only 15 percent of jobs are “reachable” via a 90-minute transit commute. In the Richmond metro area, 27 percent of jobs are accessible by a 90 minute transit commute.

It also refers to a Department of Justice (DOJ) “Dear Colleague” letter from March which aimed to address “increased attention on the illegal enforcement of fines and fees in certain jurisdictions around the country.”

According to DOJ's Civil Rights Division, courts cannot violate drivers’ constitutional rights to equal protection and due process by discriminating based on a person’s financial status. If a person is financially unable to pay a fine, he cannot be incarcerated without alternatives being considered.  

DOJ also mandates that courts must “provide meaningful notice” when enforcing fines and fees, and “must not use arrest warrants or license suspensions as a means of coercing the payment of court debt when individuals have not been afforded constitutionally adequate procedural protections.”

However, an LAJC report from May claims that 65 of Virginia’s 105 General District Courts (62 percent) “collect little to no data about a debtor’s individual financial circumstances before establishing a payment plan.”

According to the report, 914,450 individual Virginians “had at least one outstanding license suspension order due to unpaid court costs and fines” in 2015, while 366,773 license suspensions were issued in that fiscal year alone.

“Without a clear understanding of a debtor’s financial situation, courts are likely to have little appreciation of the hardships faced by Virginians who need to decide between paying child support, buying food or covering court costs,” Ciofi said in a press release accompanying the report.

The lawsuit claims that imposing fees that low-income drivers cannot afford leads to suspended licenses - which in turn keep them from earning the money to pay back the interest-accruing court debt.

“Most low-income debtors are offered no meaningful alternatives to fulfill their financial obligations to the court before their licenses are suspended,” the lawsuit alleges, adding that the end result is often jail time for ordinary traffic violations.

 “I’m not a criminal in any sense of the word and I’ve been sent to jail twice,” Robert Taylor, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit who owes nearly $5,000 in unpaid traffic tickets and resulting fees, told

The Virginia Fines and Fees Report shows that court clerks collected $251.4 million out of a total of $429.3 million fines and fees assessed in the commonwealth in 2015.

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