FOR YEARS, Virginia has waged a senseless campaign against the indigent by revoking driving privileges from people who fail to pay court-ordered fines and fees — often because they cannot afford the cost. Nearly 1 million Virginians — 1 in 6 of the state’s drivers — have lost their driver’s licenses for reasons owing partly or exclusively to court debt, frequently for misdemeanors arising from relatively minor offenses completely unrelated to driving.
Gov. Ralph Northam (D) has now thrown his support behind bipartisan efforts underway in Richmond to end the practice, which punishes people for debt and poverty while doing nothing to get dangerous drivers off the road. The state’s policy is folly, and Mr. Northam’s push is timely.
A national survey last year found that 43 states and the District of Columbia suspend licenses because of unpaid court debt as a matter of policy. Lawsuits challenging the practice have been filed in the past two years in at least five states, including Virginia. In Tennessee this year, a federal judge found it is unconstitutional and “powerfully counterproductive.”
“If a person has no resources to pay a debt, he cannot be threatened or cajoled into paying it; he may, however, become able to pay it in the future,” wrote Judge Aleta Trauger. “But taking his driver’s license away sabotages that prospect.”
Sensible state laws would, at the least, assess drivers’ financial circumstances and ability to pay before suspending their licenses. Without such safeguards, debt-ridden drivers are at risk of losing jobs, access to medical care and the ability to care for their children. Installment plans should be available for indigent drivers facing debt; drivers whose licenses are suspended should be eligible for waivers that would allow them to get to and from work.
Yes, lawbreakers should face consequences, and government has a responsibility to keep roads safe. It has an equal responsibility to ensure that poverty is not criminalized and that a low bank balance is not a one-way ticket to unemployment.