UPDATE: Northam calls for end of automatic driver’s license suspensions

Governor Ralph Northam was at Legal Aid Justice Center to call for an end to suspending driver’s licenses without consideration of ability to pay.
Courtesy Legal Aid Justice Center Governor Ralph Northam was at Legal Aid Justice Center to call for an end to suspending driver’s licenses without consideration of ability to pay. Courtesy Legal Aid Justice Center

Governor Ralph Northam was in Charlottesville today to announce a budget amendment that would end the automatic suspension of driver’s licenses for nonpayment of court fines and costs. The amendment would also reinstate driving privileges for 627,000 Virginians whose licenses are suspended.

At Legal Aid Justice Center, which has filed suit against the commissioner of the Department of Motor Vehicles for the automatic suspensions that don’t consider someone’s ability to pay, Northam said, “It is time that we end this unjust practice and allow hardworking Virginians to get back to work”

A bill to end the practice failed in this year’s General Assembly, and one concern of legislators was that part of at $145 license reinstatement fee goes to the DMV and the Trauma Center. Northam said he’s providing $9 million in his budget amendment to cover the impact of the loss of the fee revenue.

Brianna Morgan, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, described losing her license over a minor traffic infraction during a high-risk pregnancy when she had no money. She was unable to take her father, who’d had a stroke, to doctor’s appointments. When her son had an asthma attack at school, it took an hour on the bus to get there. “Suspending people’s driver’s licenses for court debt they can’t pay hurts families,” she said. “It hurt mine.”

Plaintiff Brianna Morgan, center, with Delegate Cliff Hayes, Legal Aid Justice Center executive director Angela Ciolfi, Senator Jennifer McClellan, and Legal Aid policy coordinator Amy Woolard following the governor’s announcement that he wants to end automatic driver’s license suspensions. Legal Aid Justice Center

“The practice of suspending a person’s driver’s license for nonpayment of court fines and costs is inequitable—it’s past time we end it,” said Northam. “A driver’s license is critical to daily life, including a person’s ability to maintain a job. Eliminating a process that envelops hundreds of thousands of Virginians in a counterproductive cycle is not only fair, it’s also the right thing to do.”

Northam’s amendment goes back before the legislature when it reconvenes April 3.

The lawsuit, Stinnie v. Holcomb, was back in U.S. District Court March 25  after a big victory before Christmas. That’s when federal Judge Norman Moon issued a preliminary injunction reinstating the plaintiffs’ licenses, and said they were likely to prevail in their arguments the “license suspension scheme” is unconstitutional.

In the latest hearing, the state argued a motion to dismiss, still insisting driving is not a fundamental right, and that a traffic summons and a form given in court offered people plenty of notice that their license would be suspended 30 days after their conviction if they didn’t pay up—and if they read the form, they’d know they could request a payment plan, community service, or just ask the judge to forego the fine and court costs all together.

“What if a person 15 days later runs into a government shutdown and doesn’t get a check?” asked Moon. “What tells them they’re entitled to a hearing?”

“There is no notice before the automatic suspension,” said McGuireWoods attorney Jonathan Blank, who, with Legal Aid Justice Center, represents the plaintiffs.

He said the automatic suspension of driver’s licenses is a coercive way to collect debt, a technique private creditors can’t use. “It’s crazy and it’s not constitutional,” said Blank. “People are threatened with jail if they can’t pay their debts.”

He also called the state law “one of the worst statutes that’s in the Code of Virginia today.”

The plaintiffs filed a motion to certify a class action that would include everyone whose license is currently suspended and all future suspensions.

The commonwealth disagreed, and said the class was way over broad and would include people who could afford to pay.

“Every individual deserves the right to notice [of license suspension] regardless of their ability to pay,” said McGuireWoods attorney Laura Lange.

Judge Moon did not rule on either motion, and a weeklong trial is scheduled to begin August 5.

Legal Aid Justice Center executive director Angela Ciolfi says she can’t predict when or how the judge will rule, but “relief can’t come soon enough for the hundreds of thousands of families living under this brutally unconstitutional law.”

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