After protests roiled Ferguson, Mo., in 2014 when a police officer killed an unarmed black teenager, a subsequent investigation revealed law enforcement acting as collection agents for state and local governments trying to raise revenue.
Now, a federal class action lawsuit is bringing the debate to Virginia.
A suit filed July 6 against the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles alleges the DMV indefinitely suspends driver’s licenses of those too poor to pay fines and court costs in an “unconstitutional scheme.”
“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,” reads the suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Western Virginia.
The suit, filed by the Legal Aid Justice Center, which represents low-income Virginians, says more than 940,000 people in Virginia currently have their licenses suspended for nonpayment.
According to the Legal Aid Justice Center, the suspension of driver’s licenses for nonpayment can prevent people from keeping or obtaining jobs, leading to a vicious cycle of additional fines, unemployment and, sometimes, incarceration. The suit says more than one-third of suspensions for failure to pay are related to convictions unrelated to motor vehicles.
A spokesman for Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring declined to comment on the litigation, saying the state has not yet filed its response to the suit.
Angela Ciolfi, a legal director at the Legal Aid Justice Center, said fines could keep poor people unable to pay them “in a perpetual state of punishment.”
“We just kind of keep going after people for payment,” she said. “. . . When does it end?”
The suit detailed the problems of four named plaintiffs, including 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 says.
Neil Russo, a 61-year-old cancer survivor also named in the suit, lost his license after he was convicted of a number of crimes, including assault and battery, in the past decade.
Now, living in rural Fluvanna County with a liver disorder, he is unable to get to a doctor, according to the suit.
“I wouldn’t have to depend on someone to take me to medical appointments,” Russo said. “It would give me some sense of dignity back.”
The suit also says Virginia receives ever-greater revenue from court fines and fees, with an increase of “from $281.5 million in fiscal year 1998 to $618.8 million in 2014.”
Col. Martin Kumer, the superintendent of the Albemarle Charlottesville Regional Jail, who isn’t involved in the suit, said he sees too many people are incarcerated for driving with a suspended license.
“We have to stop locking people up because they are too poor to pay fines and court costs,” said Kumer, who started a program for inmates to pay back court costs with community service. “I’m not saying they shouldn’t have to pay. But we can’t take away their ability to get a job.”