‘Modern-day debtors’ prison’: Injunction sought to stop practice of suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid fines


Legal Aid Justice Center attorney Angela Ciolfi wants a judge to order the DMV to stop automatically suspending driver’s licenses because of unpaid fines and court costs.
Staff photo Caption Legal Aid Justice Center attorney Angela Ciolfi wants a judge to order the DMV to stop automatically suspending driver’s licenses because of unpaid fines and court costs. Staff photo

It’s a tough argument to make: That a woman with three children who makes around $9 an hour, who can’t buy enough groceries to meet minimum nutritional needs, and who shares a bedroom with two kids in an apartment with another family, has plenty of money left over to pay $100 a month to get her suspended driver’s license back.

Yet that was the case the Commonwealth of Virginia made at a November 15 hearing. The state suggested that if the woman gave up her cellphone, she’d have the $100 a month and that losing access to communication would in no way would cause her “irreparable harm.”

The case is Stinnie v. Holcomb, and it was filed in 2016 by the Legal Aid Justice Center, which claims the state’s automatic suspension of driver’s licenses for nonpayment of court fines and fees that often have nothing to do with actual driving infractions, is unconstitutional because it happens with no notice of the suspension, no consideration of the person’s ability to pay, and falls disproportionately upon the poor.

At a four-and-a-half-hour hearing in U.S. District Court, plaintiffs’ attorneys asked Judge Norman Moon for a preliminary injunction to immediately stop the automatic suspensions.

Moon has seen this case before. In early 2017, he heard the state’s motion to dismiss, which argued that Richard Holcomb, the DMV commissioner, was not the proper defendant and federal court not the proper venue. Moon agreed and dismissed the case, but a federal appeals court sent it back to him.

This time, Moon asked a lot more questions about how indigent people were supposed to pay staggering court costs—and then the additional $145 the DMV charges to reinstate a license. At times he called a driver’s license a “property right,” veering from the state’s assertion that a license is a privilege.

“We’re seeking an order declaring the statute unconstitutional,” said Legal Aid Justice Center attorney Angela Ciolfi. That’s a possibility Moon had considered last year in his decision dismissing the case, because people get no notice or hearing about the license suspension—in effect no due process.

Adrianne Johnson, 34, is one of the plaintiffs. The native Charlottesvillian has three children and worked as a certified nursing assistant until she was convicted of a drug charge in Brunswick County. She didn’t get jail time, but had court costs of $865. She was paying $100 a month until she lost her job. Unaware that her license had been suspended for the unpaid fines, she was then charged with driving with a suspended license. After a second suspension, she stopped driving because a third conviction carries jail time.

Not having a license has affected her job opportunities, she testified. Though she managed to find another job, the lack of a driver’s license is preventing her from being promoted to manager, she said, because that position requires driving to make daily bank deposits.

“It’s very stressful, very inconvenient to me and my children,” she said. Her daughter has medical issues and her son plays sports. “I can’t take him or go to any of his games.”

With a license, she said, “I would be able to have a better paying job. I could pay the court costs and fines.”

Assistant Attorney General Margaret O’Shea asked Johnson if she’d gone to the Brunswick court to ask for community service.

“No, I didn’t know about that,” said Johnson. “And how am I going to get to Brunswick? I don’t have a license.”

O’Shea suggested that with Johnson’s $200/month rent for a room she shares with two of her children, she should have plenty of money left over to pay her fines.

“I have nothing left over after I pay my expenses,” said Johnson. “It just leaves me with nothing. Nothing at all.”

The plaintiffs called Diana Pearce, a University of Washington professor who created the self-sufficiency standard, which determines that amount of income needed to meet basic needs.

Pearce looked at Johnson’s income and expenses, and said, “She’s not able to meet her basic needs based on her income.”

O’Shea asked if the numbers meant Johnson had $400 a month left over, and that with the $200 rent, “she had a roof over her head.”

The money is not extra income, maintained Pearce. Johnson is “not spending enough on housing and nutritional needs,” and sharing a room with two kids was not meeting basic needs, she added.

Steven Peterson is a microeconomist who testified that the loss of a driver’s license for unpaid fines “disproportionately affected poor people,” with 40 to 45 percent losing their jobs. If they found another job, he said, 88 percent had lower incomes.

Using numbers from the DMV, he said in 2017, 977,891 people had their licenses suspended, and 647,517 of those were suspended only as a result of not paying fines and court costs.

McGuireWoods attorney Jonathan Blank asked the judge to declare the suspensions unconstitutional. “You cannot punish a person who lacks the resources to pay a debt,” he said. “We’re here because this is a modern-day debtors prison.”

Moon seemed skeptical of the commonwealth’s arguments that the costs on indigent people caused no “irreparable harm,” and said, “They shouldn’t be punished if they cannot pay.”

But with an eye toward the weather, Moon recessed the court without ruling and said he had to get to Lynchburg.

“I feel very heartened by the judge’s questions,” said Ciolfi. “He clearly gets the unfairness” and the “devastation” to people’s lives.



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