After a class-action lawsuit claimed Virginia suspends the driver’s licenses of those too poor to pay fines and court costs in an “unconstitutional scheme,” the state replied Monday, saying the suit raised no legitimate complaint.
“Though Plaintiffs’ case could appear sympathetic from a policy perspective, it fails when viewed from a legal one,” said the state’s memorandum in support of a motion to dismiss.
The class action, filed in July against the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia, said more than 940,000 people in Virginia currently have their licenses suspended for nonpayment.
The suspensions can effectively keep poor people poor, according to the Legal Aid Justice Center, which represents low-income Virginians.
“Hundreds of thousands of people have lost their licenses simply because they are too poor to pay, 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 read.
The suit described the problems of four named plaintiffs, including Damian Stinnie, 24, a Charlottesville man diagnosed with lymphoma who became homeless after failing to pay about $1,000 in traffic fines.
“Mr. Stinnie has been and still is unable to get on a payment plan in any of these courts because they each have highly restrictive payment plan policies that prevent his entry,” the lawsuit said.
The national debate about how fines and court costs punish the poor was sparked last year after an investigation in Ferguson, Mo., following the police shooting of Michael Brown.
In the response, Virginia said its laws do not discriminate.
“Under Virginia’s statutory scheme, any individual who fails to pay court-imposed fines and costs will have his driver’s license suspended, regardless of income, race, gender, nationality, or other trait,” the memorandum stated. “For this reason, Virginia’s statutes do not provide dissimilar treatment to equally-situated individuals.”
Among other arguments, Virginia’s response said that federal courts do not have jurisdiction to hear the complaints, which originated with state court orders, and that the statute of limitations for the claims it raised has passed.
It also said that Virginia’s DMV does not have the ability to ignore court orders. Just as sex offenders cannot challenge their automatic placement on a sex-offender registry, it said, those whose licenses were automatically suspended because they did not pay a fine cannot claim a lack of due process.
“Plaintiffs challenge, in essence, the perceived unfairness of the strict payment plans, lack of ability to pay analysis, and failure to provide community service options to avoid license suspension,” it stated. “The DMV is not responsible for any of these issues.”
Though individual cases might seem heartbreaking, this was not relevant in court, the response said.
“Although Plaintiffs have set forth what could be described as a persuasive argument that courts should give indigent criminal defendants greater latitude . . . what they have presented is, at its heart, a policy argument — and this is not a policy-making forum,” the document stated. “It is a court of law, and it is legal standards that govern whether this case must rise or fall.”
In a statement, the Legal Aid Justice Center criticized the state’s response, saying it relied on legal technicalities.
“The state is defending the indefensible,” Angela Ciolfi, a senior attorney at the center, said in a statement.
A spokesman for Virginia’s Office of the Attorney General declined to comment Tuesday.