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Lawsuit claiming Va. suspends driver’s licenses in ‘unconstitutional scheme’ is revived

People wait in line at the DMV office in Alexandria, Va., on Jan 3, 2004.
People wait in line at the DMV office in Alexandria, Va., on Jan 3, 2004. (Lucian Perkins/The Washington Post)
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A federal class-action lawsuit that claims Virginia suspends the driver’s licenses of some poor people in an “unconstitutional scheme” will proceed after an appeals court overruled a lower court’s dismissal of the lawsuit Wednesday.

Judge dismisses lawsuit that claimed Va. suspends driver’s licenses of poor people in ‘unconstitutional scheme’

In 2016, the Legal Aid Justice Center, which represents low-income Virginians, filed suit in U.S. District Court in Western Virginia claiming that more than 940,000 people in the state had their licenses suspended for nonpayment of fees and fines.

The policy infringes on the rights of the poor, the suit said, “effectively depriving them of reliable, lawful transportation necessary to get to and from work, take children to school, keep medical appointments, care for ill or disabled family members or, paradoxically, to meet their financial obligations to the courts.”

The suit, Stinnie v. Holcomb, detailed the claims of Damian Stinnie, a 24-year-old Charlottesville man diagnosed with lymphoma who became homeless after failing to pay about $1,000 in traffic fines.

After the Justice Department and the Virginia NAACP filed briefs in support of the suit, it was dismissed last year when a district court judge ruled that plaintiffs should pursue their claims in state court.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit disagreed in a 2-to-1 decision, returning the case to a lower court.

“The Fourth Circuit’s decision today keeps this case alive,” Angela Ciolfi, the Legal Aid Justice Center’s litigation director, said in a statement. “We will keep fighting to win relief for the million souls and their families caught up in Virginia’s unconstitutional license-for-payment scheme.”

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

A Washington Post analysis published this month found that more than 7 million people nationwide may have lost their licenses because of such debts. A spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles said 647,517 drivers had their licenses suspended as of late 2016 for failure to pay fines and fees.