Charlottesville resident Damian Stinnie, 24, grew up in foster care, and in 2013 was diagnosed with lymphoma. That same year, he was convicted of three traffic citations in Henrico and Goochland counties. Unable to pay the resulting $1,002 in court costs and fines with his minimum wage paychecks, Stinnie’s driver’s license was suspended.
Although he just started a new job, for several years Stinnie was indigent and living on $750 a month in disability payments as his fines continued to swell to $1,531, which must be paid if he ever wants to get his driver’s license back. That’s why he’s one of four plaintiffs in a class action suit filed in July against Richard Holcomb, head of the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles.
The suit contends Virginia’s court debt payment system is unconstitutional because it punishes defendants for being poor, takes no consideration of their ability to pay, offers no alternative payment plans and no due-process protection.
“The resulting cascade of hardship—job loss, mounting interest, convictions for driving while suspended, additional costs and fines, and even jail time—keeps low-income people in a perpetual state of disadvantage, a state that people with means can avoid simply by paying in full,” alleges the suit, which was filed by a handful of attorneys, including Legal Aid Justice Center in Charlottesville.
The U.S. Department of Justice filed a brief in support of the suit in November.
Legal Aid attorney Angela Ciolfi says there’s been “widespread recognition from policy makers on the left and right that the system is not working and is counterproductive.”
Governor Terry McAuliffe proposed his own package of criminal justice reforms January 3, with bills to reduce the practice of suspending the driver’s licenses of offenders who either cannot afford to pay court costs or who committed a non-driving offense. The state’s pot possession law is an example of the latter, in which even possession of a joint results in a six-month driver’s license loss.
McAuliffe says 200,000 Virginians have had their licenses suspended for “convictions that have absolutely nothing to do with driving offenses,” and nearly 600,000 can’t get licenses because they can’t pay court and legal fees.
“We suspend someone’s license because they can’t pay their court fines, but you’re taking away their license so they can’t drive to work to actually pay the fines,” says McAuliffe. “That makes absolutely no sense.”
Southern Albemarle’s Delegate Matt Fariss is carrying a bill that would allow those who are licenseless because of nonpayment of fines to get their licenses back if they present to the DMV “a written offer of employment that is contingent on the person’s possessing a driver’s license.”
Fariss says he’s had young men and women apply for jobs and say, “‘I don’t have a license but I can get a restricted license if I have a job,’” because Virginia doesn’t offer restricted licenses for the unemployed. As an employer, says Fariss, “I can’t wait 30 days.” His bill has petitioners pay a reinstatement fee and the employer withhold 10 percent or $100—whichever is greater—for payment of those unpaid fines.
With three state prisons in Fariss’ district, he’s aware of the need for incentives to get former inmates jobs, and calls his legislation “a job creation bill.”
Delegate Rob Bell, who chairs a House criminal law subcommittee, did not respond to phone calls from C-VILLE about how McAuliffe’s proposals might fare in the Republican-controlled General Assembly.
House Speaker William Howell said in a statement, “I am very sympathetic toward individuals who get trapped in a vicious cycle of having their license revoked, not being able to drive to work, losing their job, and not being able to pay off court costs. However, the General Assembly must be very careful as this issue is currently being litigated in court.”
McAuliffe also proposed to make it easier for consideration of new biological evidence in criminal cases. Currently those who pleaded guilty in Virginia are prohibited from petitioning for a writ of actual innocence.
“It’s a no-brainer, of course, that people plead guilty when they’re innocent for a number of reasons,” says defense attorney Steve Benjamin, who calls McAuliffe’s legislation “a modest adjustment” that would not have helped his wrongfully convicted client Mark Weiner, nor recently pardoned Robert Davis, because there was no DNA evidence available in either case.
“The reality is that innocent people routinely get convicted of crimes they didn’t commit, or, in Weiner’s case, that never occurred,” he says, adding that the state “needs wholesale reform to protect the innocent and those wrongfully accused.”
The governor also wants to up the felony larceny limit from $200, one of the lowest in the country, to $500. “Let’s not saddle people who steal an iPhone or some sneakers with a lifetime of difficulty in getting jobs, voting or housing opportunities,” he says on Twitter.
State Senator Bryce Reeves, a Republican who represents eastern Albemarle, has carried similar legislation multiple times since 2012—but has not filed such a bill this year. Reeves did not respond to a request for comment about whether such a measure could garner bipartisan support in the General Assembly.