Prosecutors pump the brakes on suspended license cases

Joe Platania, the city's commonwealth's attorney, announced he will no longer prosecute people for driving on a license that was suspended for the sole reason of unpaid court costs or fines.

A lawsuit to help prevent those unable to pay court fines from spiraling into further debt and prosecution got a significant boost last week.

Charlottesville Commonwealth’s Attorney Joe Platania announced January 4 that he will no longer prosecute people charged with driving on a license that was suspended solely for failure to pay court costs or fines.

Platania’s announcement comes on the heels of a December 21 preliminary injunction by a federal judge in Charlottesville, which ordered Department of Motor Vehicles Commissioner Richard Holcomb to reinstate the driver’s licenses of three plaintiffs who automatically lost their licenses when they were unable to pay court costs and fines. Judge Norman Moon predicted attorneys will win the case, and said such automatic suspensions are unconstitutional.

Platania said the injunction raises “significant concerns” about prosecuting people who have had their licenses suspended in that way. He will continue to prosecute other suspensions for DUIs or restitutions, he says.

“I think Joe did the right thing and I’m really proud he did it,” says Liz Murtagh, head of the public defender’s office. “It’ll make a big difference for people,” she adds, particularly her clients, who often can’t afford to pay their fines as they’re leaving the courtroom, starting a “vicious, vicious” cycle.

Albemarle County Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert Tracci says his office put a halt to prosecuting the cases because of the injunction. The cases have been continued in general district court until the constitutional issues have been resolved or the injunction is lifted.

Before Tracci confirmed that his office was not prosecuting those cases, local immigration attorney Tanishka Cruz predicted it wouldn’t happen in the county “as long as Robert Tracci is the commonwealth’s attorney.”

She says Tracci’s office has historically taken a “one size fits all” approach and has sent many of her clients to jail for such an offense.

Says Tracci, “Commonwealth’s attorneys have no more discretion to ignore a federal injunction than to ignore federal immigration laws.”

Attorneys with the Legal Aid Justice Center are representing the three plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit against the DMV.

“We are very hopeful that between the judicial ruling and the bipartisan momentum for repeal, the time has come to end this destructive practice,” says Legal Aid Executive Director Angela Ciolfi. “Meanwhile, the ruling casts doubt on the constitutionality of all suspensions flowing from the statute, and it makes sense for law enforcement to press pause on enforcement.”

Updated January 9 at 12:12pm to clarify that Robert Tracci stopped prosecuting these cases when the injunction was issued.