The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Report: 1 in 6 Va. drivers have suspended licenses partly due to unpaid court debt

A sample Virginia driver’s license is seen here. About one in six Virginia drivers has a suspended license partly because of an inability to pay court debt, a new report found. (N/A)

About one in six Virginia drivers has a suspended license partly because of an inability to pay court debt, according to a study from an advocacy group released Wednesday.

The report by the Legal Aid Justice Center, which represents low-income Virginians, indicates 974,349 residents in the state have their driver's license suspended partly because of court debt, while 638,003 had their license suspended solely for that reason.

There are about 6.2 million licensed drivers in Virginia, the study said, andtheir licenses can be suspended for more than one reason.

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

The report also examined payment-plan policies in 116 Virginia general district courts after the state made it easier last year for drivers who owe money to establish such plans. These plans often don't help drivers avoid having licenses suspended, according to the report.

"Our review indicates that, even following significant reforms, payment-plan policies in place across Virginia are not designed to take into account people's individual financial circumstances, resulting in unrealistic and unaffordable payment plans that often lead to default," the study said. "Of the 116 policies we examined, not one gives any indication of how it evaluates ability to pay, and correspondingly, the inability to pay."

The Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles didn't respond to requests for comment about the study Wednesday.

Pat Levy-Lavelle, an attorney at the Legal Aid Justice Center, said payment plans are "just part of the puzzle." He urged Virginia to follow states such as California, which has ended the practice of suspending licenses for unpaid fines.

"Driver's license suspensions for unpaid court debt are unfair to drivers because they can't pay, counterproductive for courts if they ever want to see their money and are also expensive to enforce," he said.

The report comes as advocates for the poor across the country are scrutinizing the practice — common in many states — of suspending driver's licenses when someone owes overdue fines, fees or other court debts. After a Justice Department investigation of the Ferguson, Mo., police department in 2015 found law enforcement was acting as a "collection agency" for state and local governments trying to raise revenue, advocates argued such suspensions unfairly punish the poor.

Millions of drivers lost their licenses for failing to pay court fees, study finds

In 2016, the Legal Aid Justice Center filed a class-action case in federal court alleging that the state suspends licenses as part of an "unconstitutional scheme." The Justice Department, under the Obama administration, filed a brief in support of the suit — which said more than 940,000 Virginians had licenses suspended for nonpayment of fees and fines — although the group lost the case in U.S. District Court in Western Virginia. It is now under appeal.

In September, the organization released a study finding that more than 4.2 million people had their licenses suspended for unpaid court debt in five states: Virginia, Texas, North Carolina, Tennessee and Michigan.