The Justice Department filed a brief Monday supporting a class-action lawsuit that claims Virginia suspends poor people’s driver’s licenses in an “unconstitutional scheme,” court documents show.
In July, the class-action lawsuit, Stinnie et al. v. Holcomb, was filed in U.S. District Court in Western Virginia against the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, claiming 940,000 people in the state have their licenses suspended for nonpayment of fines and court costs.
The lawsuit explained the plight of four named plaintiffs, including a 24-year-old Charlottesville man with lymphoma who became homeless after failing to pay about $1,000 in traffic fines.
“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 says.
The Virginia suit recalled criticism of law enforcement acting as collection agents for state and local governments in Ferguson, Mo., as detailed in a Justice Department report after the 2014 shooting of an unarmed black teenager there.
Now, in a 21-page statement of interest filed Monday, the Justice Department said the court should rule that those who filed the class-action suit have a “plausible claim” that improperly suspending licenses violates constitutional rights to due process guaranteed by the 14th Amendment.
“Suspending the driver’s licenses of those who fail to pay fines or fees without inquiring into whether that failure to pay was willful or instead the result of an inability to pay may result in penalizing indigent individuals solely because of their poverty,” the statement of interest said.
The Justice Department said in a news release that the statement of interest “advances the department’s robust efforts to prevent unlawful practices that punish poverty at every stage of the justice system and that trap vulnerable residents in cycles of debt from court fines and fees.”
Angela Ciolfi, a legal director at the Legal Aid Justice Center, the advocacy group that filed the class-action suit, said it was not aware the Justice Department planned to support its action, but had kept the agency informed of its progress.
“We’ve always thought it was a national civil rights issue with larger implications and are glad the Department of Justice agrees,” Ciolfi said.
Virginia’s attorney general was not immediately available for comment, but the state, in a response to the suit filed last month, denied it unfairly suspends driver’s licenses.
“Though Plaintiffs’ case could appear sympathetic from a policy perspective, it fails when viewed from a legal one,” the state wrote in a memorandum in support of a motion to dismiss.
The Justice Department is not the only group that’s supporting the lawsuit. In an amicus brief filed this month, the Virginia NAACP said undue suspension of driver’s licenses in the state unfairly affects African Americans.