Punishing: Repeal of automatic driver’s license suspensions dies in subcommittee

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Delegate Rob Bell was on the subcommittee that killed a repeal of automatic driver’s license suspensions.  AMY JACKSON SMITH Delegate Rob Bell was on the subcommittee that killed a repeal of automatic driver’s license suspensions.  AMY JACKSON SMITH

Things were looking good for opponents of Virginia’s automatic suspension of driver’s licenses for nonpayment of court costs. A federal judge had opined the state law is likely unconstitutional, a Republican state senator carried a bill that repealed the law, and it passed the Senate 36-4.

Then it got to a House subcommittee, where four Republicans, including Delegate Rob Bell, torpedoed the measure 4-3.

Senator Bill Stanley, a criminal defense attorney who represents a chunk of Southside, was not pleased, particularly with Bell and House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert and their grip on the Courts of Justice subcommittee.

He told the Roanoke Times February 11, “They just want to continue to punish people, they just want to continue to punish the poor, they just want to continue to put their will forth as the will of the commonwealth, two people determining the fate of 600,000 Virginians. This is rule by fiat.”

Stanley, who carried the same bill last year, figured it had a better chance this year, particularly after Judge Norman Moon issued a preliminary injunction in Stinnie v. DMV ordering the reinstatement of the plaintiffs’ licenses, which had been automatically suspended when they couldn’t afford to pay the fines and court costs, which thrust them into spiraling debt and, in some cases, jail for driving on suspended licenses.

Legislators who didn’t support the measure last year told Stanley they would vote for it this year, he says. “When Judge Moon made his decision, I thought we’re either going to fix this problem of debtors prison or a federal judge will,” says Stanley. “It looks like the judge will.”

He calls the automatic suspensions “punitive,” and the $145 DMV reinstatement fee a tax. “This has nothing to do with bad driving,” he says.

Bell “respectfully disagrees” with Stanley. For serious offenses like passing a school bus or texting while driving, “when someone violates those, I do think it’s appropriate they be punished and they pay some penalty,” he says.

The General Assembly passed a law in 2017 that requires courts to offer payment plans or community service. “As long as you’re on the payment plan, you have your license and you can drive,” says Bell. “We do require you to have some punishment.”

“You miss one payment and your license is suspended,” retorts Stanley. And those plans are used “exclusively for those who are in front of the court. It does nothing for the 600,000 who have already had their licenses suspended.”

Stanley says the automatic license suspensions punish people for being poor, and makes it difficult for them to get to jobs and provide for their families. “It perpetuates poverty,” he says. “I don’t think you can have economic growth without removing the crushing cycle of poverty.”

He adds, “You’d think Republicans would want to get people off dependency.”

Angela Ciolfi, executive director of the Legal Aid Justice Center, represents the plaintiffs in the federal case. She says her team did an analysis of the results of the payment plan legislation and found that the new policy made almost no difference in the number of licenses suspended.

“And the suspension law hasn’t changed, either,” she says. “When someone doesn’t pay or falls off a payment plan, the law says that suspension is automatic, with no notice, no hearing, and no consideration of why the person didn’t pay.”

She’s working on making the case a class action suit, and anticipates the parties will be back in court soon.

Stanley believes that if Judge Moon orders the DMV to reinstate all the licenses suspended for nonpayment of fines, “it will create havoc in the DMV” that could be avoided if legislators fixed the problem.

And he’s still not happy that a subcommittee killed a bill he thought had broad bipartisan support in the General Assembly. “The rule of a few is determining the future of 600,000 people.”

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