Suspended licenses: Lawsuit back in federal court

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Legal Aid Justice Center attorney Angela Ciolfi again will try to convince a federal judge that suspension of driver’s licenses for nonpayment of court costs without consideration of the defendant’s ability to pay is unconstitutional. Staff photo Legal Aid Justice Center attorney Angela Ciolfi again will try to convince a federal judge that suspension of driver’s licenses for nonpayment of court costs without consideration of the defendant’s ability to pay is unconstitutional. Staff photo

It’s not just bad driving that has caused nearly 1 million Virginians’ licenses to be suspended. Failure to pay court costs—often unrelated to being behind the wheel at all—has put indigent citizens in a downward spiral of debt, unemployment, and incarceration, according to a civil suit filed by the Legal Aid Justice Center two years ago.

In a February 2017 hearing in U.S. District Court for Stinnie v. Holcomb, lawyers from the state attorney general’s office representing defendant Richard Holcomb, commissioner of the DMV, argued that Holcomb was not the appropriate defendant and the federal district court in Charlottesville was not the right jurisdiction to hear the case. Judge Norman Moon agreed and dismissed the case.

In May, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals remanded the case back to district court to allow the plaintiffs to amend their suit, which they did September 11.

“We spent a lot of time on what the DMV commissioner does,” says Angela Ciolfi, Legal Aid’s director of litigation and advocacy. License suspension “cannot be accomplished without the DMV, which gets revenue to reinstate licenses.”

The amended complaint adds four new plaintiffs from across the state. “They’ve all been treated exactly the same by the DMV,” says Ciolfi.

Two of the plaintiffs are from Charlottesville. Adrianne Johnson, 34, was working as a certified nursing assistant making $8.86 an hour in 2013 when she was convicted of a drug-related charge. She did not get jail time, but she was ordered to pay $865 in court costs, much of that for her court-appointed lawyer.

“So many people who live paycheck to paycheck don’t have a dime to spare,” says Ciolfi.

Although Johnson was on a payment plan, she couldn’t afford to make regular payments and her license was suspended, according to the suit. She continued to work—and to drive to get to her job, take care of her family, and take her daughter to medical appointments. In November 2017, she was convicted of driving on a suspended license.

The court put her on a payment plan requiring her debt be paid in six months, which the minimum wage earner could not afford, and when she missed a payment, her license was again suspended in May 2018, according to the complaint.

Johnson stopped driving after the November conviction, lives with her two children in a crowded apartment with another family—and struggles to pay rent and buy groceries, much less pay the roughly $900 she owes in court costs and the $150 it would take to reinstate her license.

“It’s not just about the people whose licenses have been suspended,” says Ciolfi, “but it’s about their families who can’t move forward.”

And in the two years the case has been pending, “we know of hundreds of thousands more suspensions and convictions of driving while suspended,” says Ciolfi.

She points out that states like California have repealed laws requiring license suspension for unpaid court debt, and in Mississippi, the state official in charge of suspensions has stopped enforcing the statute.

“These statutes are not holding up to constitutional scrutiny in other states,” she says.

The suspensions fall disproportionately on “low-income persons and communities of color,” alleges the complaint. African Americans make up 20 percent of Virginia’s population, but receive nearly half the orders of suspension for unpaid court debt and almost 60 percent of convictions for driving with licenses suspended because of court debt, according to the suit.

Ciolfi would like the General Assembly to repeal debt-driven suspensions, and says the Senate passed a bill to do so earlier this year, but it died in the House of Delegates.

In the meantime, she’ll ask the court for a preliminary injunction to stop the suspensions and a certification for a class action against the state law she says is unconstitutional.

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