A federal court dismissed a class-action lawsuit this week that claimed Virginia suspends the driver’s licenses of some poor people in an “unconstitutional scheme.”
The suit, filed last year in U.S. District Court in Western Virginia by the Legal Aid Justice Center, which represents low-income Virginians, said more than 940,000 people in the state had their licenses suspended for nonpayment of fees and fines. On Monday, Judge Norman K. Moon ruled that the claims may be “meritorious” but said Virginia’s state courts were the proper venue for the case.
“Virginia law leads state judges to automatically suspend a defendant’s driver’s license for nonpayment of court fees and fines, regardless of his ability to pay,” the opinion read. “That unflinching command may very well violate plaintiffs’ constitution rights to due process and equal protection. But the Constitution does not allow a federal district court to decide the matter.”
The suit claimed hundreds of thousands of Virginians have lost their licenses because they cannot pay fines and court costs, “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 Justice Department and the Virginia NAACP filed briefs in support of the suit, which detailed the claims of Damian Stinnie, a 24-year-old Charlottesville man diagnosed with lymphoma who fell into homelessness 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 federal court also said that state courts, not Virginia’s Department of Motor Vehicles commissioner — the defendant named in the lawsuit — were legally responsible for suspending the licenses.
Angela Ciolfi, a Legal Aid Justice Center senior attorney, said the organization was considering its options, which include appealing the decision or filing a new complaint.
“Although we are disappointed in the court’s decision, we stand steadfast with our clients and the nearly one million long-suffering Virginia drivers who will continue to endure a never-ending cycle of debt and incarceration, so long as the law forces them to choose between driving illegally and forsaking the needs of their families,” the Legal Aid Justice Center said in a statement.
The Department of Justice and the Virginia NAACP did not respond to a request for comment.