Nick Sibilla is a legislative analyst at the Institute for Justice.

With the novel coronavirus pandemic still raging, having a car is critical for many Virginians to get to work, shop for groceries and run errands. But until legislation was signed this spring, Virginians would lose their driver’s licenses if they had unpaid fines and fees or if they had been convicted of any drug crime.  

In fact, according to a new report from the Institute for Justice, Virginia’s license suspensions for failure to pay fines and fees were the most punitive in the nation. As the report noted, driver’s license suspensions are “one of the harshest means courts can use to force people to pay fines and fees” because they give courts powerful leverage against citizens.

Little wonder then that when the policy was in full gear, more than 900,000 Virginians had their licenses suspended for failure to pay fines and fees. That represented roughly two-thirds of all license suspensions in the state.  

Those who decided to drive on a suspended license risked further fines, even jail time, which only further perpetuated a vicious cycle of poverty. Not only was this policy unjust, but it also was remarkably counterproductive. After all, if a person can’t get to work, then he or she can’t earn the money necessary to pay debts.

Last year, as part of a budget bill, Virginia lawmakers enacted a provision that blocked the state from suspending licenses over outstanding fines and fees. But that provision was temporary, set to last for only a year. Now, the newly signed SB 1 has made those reforms permanent. Just as critical, the law is retroactive and reinstates licenses for Virginians who had theirs suspended before the 2019 reform took effect.  

With SB 1, Virginia joins a growing reform movement. In late March, West Virginia ended its driver’s license suspension policy, while Maryland reformed its practices a few weeks ago. Those efforts are in striking contrast to the rest of the nation. According to the Free to Drive campaign, more than 40 states take away people’s legal ability to drive simply because they didn’t pay fines and fees.

Although Virginia is a leader in ending driver’s license suspensions over unpaid court debt, the state had long been a laggard when it came to suspending licenses for drug offenses. In the early 1990s, Congress enacted a law denying highway funding to states that didn’t automatically suspend driver’s licenses for anyone convicted of any drug crime. But states can easily opt out, as long as they notify the U.S. Transportation Department that they oppose that policy.

Many did. But for years, the Old Dominion didn’t. Until Gov. Ralph Northam (D) signed the repeal bill, Virginia was one of just six states that suspended driver’s licenses merely because the motorist had been convicted of a drug offense unrelated to driving. Thanks to this relic from the War on Drugs, nearly 40,000 Virginians lost their licenses each year, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.

Not only will the new reforms end a major barrier to earning an honest living, but they will also bolster constitutional protections, particularly for working-class Virginians. Just days before Northam signed the bills, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that police can stop cars if the owner has a revoked license and the owner is assumed to be driving.

According to Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the lone dissenter in Kansas v. Glover, the decision gives police “free rein to stop a vehicle involved in no suspicious activity . . . based merely on a guess or a ‘hunch’ about the driver’s identity.” Because many license suspensions are triggered by unpaid court debt and the inability to pay, this ruling will disproportionately threaten the Fourth Amendment rights of lower-income Americans in states that haven’t repealed their suspension policies.

By ending license suspensions for drug crimes and unpaid fines and fees, Virginia has struck a blow against the criminalization of poverty.

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