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Virginia driver’s license suspensions ‘trap' poor people in a ‘nightmarish spiral,’ lawsuit says

A class-action lawsuit claims license suspension for court debt is a civil rights violation.

People wait in line at a Department of Motor Vehicles office in Alexandria, Va. (Lucian Perkins/The Washington Post)

A long-simmering federal class-action lawsuit that claims Virginia unjustly suspends the driver’s licenses of those unable to pay fines returned to court this week when advocates for the poor sought to immediately stop the practice.

In 2016, the Legal Aid Justice Center, which represents low-income Virginians, filed suit in U.S. District Court in Western Virginia, saying that more than 940,000 people in the state had their licenses suspended for nonpayment of fees and fines. The practice of suspending licenses for traffic debt was widely criticized after the Justice Department found law enforcement acting as collection agents in Ferguson, Mo., in 2015.

After appealing the case's dismissal, the Legal Aid Justice Center filed an amended claim Tuesday that said "the state traps thousands of Virginians in a nightmarish spiral from which there is no apparent exit" by automatically suspending the licenses of those who can't pay fines. The suspensions disproportionately affect people of color, as the state imposes more than $500 million in fines per year without considering the ability to pay, the suit alleges.

"The indefinite suspension of the driver's licenses of low-income Virginians erects significant barriers to their ability to pursue a livelihood and meet basic human needs," the suit said.

The Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles declined to comment on the suit.

Virginia suspends driver’s licenses in ‘unconstitutional scheme,’ class action says

The lawsuit, Stinnie v. Holcomb, details the story of Damian Stinnie, a 26-year-old Charlottesville man who first lost his license in 2012 after he did not pay fines for three traffic infractions. He continued to drive while battling lymphoma, the suit said, receiving additional citations for driving with a suspended license and even serving jail time.

The suit seeks an immediate halt to license suspensions for court debt and a declaration that the practice is a civil rights violation.

In a statement, Angela Ciolfi, the Legal Aid Society's director of litigation and advocacy, said driver's license suspension "sets up two justice systems in Virginia."

“Those who can immediately pay court fines or fees are able to quickly untether themselves from their infractions, while those who do not have the resources to pay continue to be punished well beyond their original infraction — they are punished for their poverty, and set up for even harsher consequences as their debts compound, their jobs are lost, and their families struggle to make ends meet," the statement said.

A Washington Post analysis in May found that more than 7 million people nationwide may have lost their licenses because of unpaid court debts.

More than 7 million people may have lost driver’s licenses because of traffic debt