Image source: Jake Burns, McAuliffe: Don’t Suspend Driver’s Licenses if Someone Can’t Pay Court Costs, WTVR CBS 6 (Jan. 3, 2017) https://wtvr.com/2017/01/03/mcauliffe-dont-suspend-drivers-license-if-someone-cant-pay-court-costs/.
By: Edward Lebar
Late in December of last year, a federal district court judge for the Western District of Virginia granted an injunction against the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles to prevent them from automatically suspending the driver’s licenses of persons with unpaid court fines and costs.1 Virginia Code § 46.2-395 requires the court to suspend the driver’s licenses of persons found to have not “provide(d) for immediate payment in full of any fine, costs, forfeitures, restitution, or penalty lawfully assessed against him.”2 Because driver’s licenses have traditionally been recognized as personal property interests, the state’s ability to revoke or suspend them falls under the scope of the due process clause of the 14th Amendment.3 As such, the state cannot suspend a person’s driver’s license without affording that person fair notice and an opportunity to be heard.4 In granting this injunction, the court determined that the plaintiffs would most likely be able to prove that the courts do not meet these requirements.5
Normally, this would be seen as a significant setback for the state government. After all, the courts assess and collect hundreds of millions of dollars annually in court fines and costs, thanks in no small part to the hundreds of thousands of licenses that the DMV revokes each year.6 In addition, once a person has paid their fines to the court, they are still required to pay at minimum a $145 fee to the DMV in order to have their license reinstated.7 Of this fee, $100 goes to the Virginia Department of Health’s Trauma Center Fund while the remaining $45 is used to pay for DMV expenses.8
Despite all of the money that is at stake, both the General Assembly and the Governor have agreed that this practice of automatic license suspension should be addressed. Three days prior to the federal district court’s decision, Governor Ralph Northam addressed the General Assembly announcing his support for changing the law, saying “[o]ften people don’t pay court costs because they can’t afford it. Suspending their license for these unpaid fines makes it that much harder for them.”9 Governor Northam echoed statements made by his predecessor, Terry McAuliffe, who said in 2017 that the practice of license suspension creates a “vicious cycle” where offenders cannot easily get back to work to make money to pay for their court fines and reinstatement fees.10
For the General Assembly’s part, the state senate recently passed a bill that would repeal the portions Virginia Code § 46.2-395 which require automatic license suspension for unpaid court debts.11 In addition, the bill allows for any driver with a currently suspended license to have it reinstated without showing proof that they have paid their fines in full, though it still requires the driver to pay the required $145 reinstatement fee to the DMV.12 Because this bill calls for the complete removal of the state’s ability to suspend licenses in this manner (as opposed to previous bills that would instead give driver’s more of an opportunity to negotiate the terms of their payment before the court)13 it is predicted to cause a loss in revenue for both the DMV and the Trauma Center Fund. Such losses could be mitigated by moving money around in the annual budget, however it remains to be seen how the state would make up for the reduction in costed collected by the courts.14
Both Governor Northam’s and then-Governor McAuliffe’s statements reflect a realization that these kinds of enforcement measures disproportionately impact poor people and low-income communities. Individuals with less money are more likely to be unable to pay their court fines, and once their licenses are suspended, they are more likely to suffer from job loss and missed opportunities for new jobs.15 Some jobs, such as those involving transportation or those that require the person to work on site, may be completely foreclosed for those with suspended licenses.16 In addition, people without valid licenses have greater difficulties in caring for their families and for themselves.17 As a result, many people with suspended licenses find themselves forced to either drive illegally and risk further punishment from the courts, or to simply stay at home and lose the ability to support themselves and their families.18
As of 2017, the majority of states had laws on their books that either allowed for or required the suspension of a person’s driver’s license for failure to pay court fines.19 But Virginia is part of a growing movement among states that seeks to change this.20 Many states are trying to mitigate the costs associated with license suspension21, whereas a handful of other states are instead looking to end the practice altogether.22 State Legislatures and Governors would be wise keep an eye on states like Virginia to see how best to implement their own plans for ending this practice in their states.
1 Stinnie v. Holcomb, No. 3:16-CV-00044, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 215002, 2 (W.D. Va. Dec. 21, 2018).
2 Va. Code § 46.2-395.
3 Stinnie v. Holcomb, No. 3:16-CV-00044, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 215002, 21 (W.D. Va. Dec. 21, 2018).
5 Id at 32.
6 Steven L. Dalle Mura, Dep’t of Legal Res., Briefing on Collection of Court Costs and Fines, 2017 Gen. Assemb., Reg. Sess. (Va. 2017).
7 Reinstatement Fee Information, Va. Dep’t of Motor Vehicles, https://www.dmv.virginia.gov/drivers/#reinstate_fee.asp (last visited Jan. 27, 2019).
9 Justin Wm. Moyer, Virginia Plans to End Driver’s License Suspensions for Court Debt, Governor Says, The Washington Post (Dec. 20, 2018), https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/virginia-plans-to-end-drivers-license-suspensions-for-court-debt-governor-says/2018/12/20/0e8ee990-03b4-11e9-b990-da60de24fefb_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.c7a14feb1627.
10 Jake Burns, McAuliffe: Don’t Suspend Driver’s Licenses if Someone Can’t Pay Court Costs, WTVR CBS 6 (Jan. 3, 2017) https://wtvr.com/2017/01/03/mcauliffe-dont-suspend-drivers-license-if-someone-cant-pay-court-costs/.
11 S.B. 1013, 2019 Gen. Assemb., Reg. Sess. (Va. 2019).
13 S.B. 578, 2019 Gen. Assemb., Reg. Sess. (Va. 2018).
14 Dep’t of Plan. and Budget, SB1013 2019 Fiscal Impact Statement, 2019 Gen. Assem., Reg. Sess. (Va. 2019).
15 Mario Salas & Angela Ciolfi, Driven by Dollars: A State-By-State Analysis of Driver’s License Suspension Laws for Failure to Pay Court Debt 3 (2017) https://www.justice4all.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/Driven-by-Dollars.pdf.
16 License Suspension Problem, Drive to Work: Restoring Driving Privileges, https://www.drivetowork.org/info/license-suspension-problem.cfm (last visited Jan. 27, 2019).
17 See Id (describing how the inability to drive limits a person’s ability to care for their children by taking them to places like school, daycare, or the hospital, and limits a person’s ability to care for themselves by being unable to engage in recreational activities that require driving).
18 Mario Salas & Angela Ciolfi, Driven by Dollars: A State-By-State Analysis of Driver’s License Suspension Laws for Failure to Pay Court Debt, Legal Aid Just. Ctr., 1 (2017) https://www.justice4all.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/Driven-by-Dollars.pdf.
19 Id at 8.
20 See Andrea M Marsh, Rethinking Driver’s License Suspension for Nonpayment of Fines and Fees, Nat’l Ctr. for St. Cts., 20, 24 (2017) https://www.ncsc.org/~/media/Microsites/Files/Trends%202017/Rethinking-Drivers-License-Suspensions-Trends-2017.ashx, (describing how a number of states are opting for different measures to limit the costs associated with driver’s license suspensions for unpaid court costs, ranging from programs that help with relicensing to the elimination of automatic suspensions as a punishment).
22 Id at 25.