Court moves closer to declaring Va. law unconstitutional linking court fines to driver’s license suspensions

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 1/4/2019, 6 a.m.
For more than two decades, people who cannot pay court fines and costs in Virginia automatically have had their driver’s ...

For more than two decades, people who cannot pay court fines and costs in Virginia automatically have had their driver’s licenses suspended.

Currently, nearly 1 million Virginians — one in six adults — have lost driving privileges because of unpaid court debt, according to the Virginia Legal Aid Justice Center.

And 40 percent of those individuals, or about 360,000 people, have lost licenses because of debt unrelated to driving offenses, VLAJC found in its research.

Now five people represented by the Charlottesville-based VLAJC have moved a step closer to having the punitive policy — also used in 42 other states — declared unconstitutional for themselves and all others affected.

In an initial move, U.S. District Judge Norman K. Moon on Dec. 21 ordered Richard D. Holcomb, commissioner of the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, to remove license suspensions against three of the plaintiffs challenging the state law. The judge also barred Mr. Holcomb from suspending the licenses of two other plaintiffs who missed installments on payment plans.

The judge also barred Mr. Holcomb from collecting DMV’s usual $145 reinstatement fee from the five plaintiffs, a fee that raises another barrier to people trying to pay off court debt and regain their licenses.

Judge Moon issued the temporary injunction after finding that the plaintiffs are likely to succeed in establishing that the state’s current policy is an unconstitutional violation of procedural due process.

He made that finding after determining that individuals do not receive any notice from the state and do not have a right to a hearing before their licenses are suspended.

In a 32-page opinion, Judge Moon, sitting in Charlottesville, rejected state arguments and found that the plaintiffs are suffering “irreparable harm” as a result of the law that took their licenses and thus prevented them from legally driving to the doctor or getting to work.

He found that the “Commonwealth’s interest in ensuring the collection of court fines and costs (is) not furthered by a license suspension scheme that neither considers an individual’s ability to pay nor provides him (or her) with an opportunity to be heard on the matter.”

At this point, Judge Moon has only reinstated the driver’s licenses of Damian Stinnie, Melissa Adams and Adrainne Johnson and blocked the suspension of the licenses of Williest Bandy and Brianna Morgan, the named plaintiffs.

However, the judge could extend the injunction to all of those with suspended licenses if he certifies the case as a class action. That is still down the legal road.

Still, VLAJC is happy with the judge’s decision in the case that began in 2016 and was kept alive only through a decision of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that allowed the legal group to amend and resubmit the case to the district court earlier this year.

The NAACP and the U.S. Justice Department joined VLAJC in that crucial appeal.

“Today’s ruling is a victory for the Constitution and for common sense,” Angela Ciolfi, executive director of the VLAJC, stated in announcing the decision. “It is time to end the devastating cycle of debt, unemployment and incarceration that this policy causes.”