DRIVERS’ LICENSE suspensions have become a debt-collection tool in many states, often to compel the payment of court-imposed fines and fees. In a handful of states, including Virginia, licenses are suspended for nonpayment even when no motor vehicle violation is involved, nor any issue of public safety, and when defendants are too poor to pay.
The result is a vicious cycle that criminalizes poverty and leaves some indigent people with no way legally of getting to work, and therefore no means to pay what they owe. For the poor, it is a dilemma that lands some in jail for driving on a suspended license rather than sacrificing their ability to earn a living — sometimes more jail time than the original crime warranted.
Well more than 1 million people have had their licenses suspended in Virginia, roughly two-thirds of them, more than 900,000 people, for failing to pay court fines and fees arising from convictions, often for misdemeanors. That amounts to a sixth of the state’s drivers, an astonishing number.
A class-action lawsuit was filed in federal court this summer by the Legal Aid Justice Center, a nonprofit group, on behalf of drivers whose licenses have been suspended for nonpayment. The suit argues that their constitutional due process rights had been disregarded in the license suspensions, which were imposed without even a hearing or opportunity for defendants to argue that their financial circumstances left them unable to pay.
By contrast, child-support debtors in Virginia are granted just such a hearing before their license may be suspended, and they are allowed to present evidence that their nonpayment arises from inability to pay rather than indifference or defiance.
In its response to the lawsuit, the state all but conceded that its policy is unfair, but asked that the lawsuit be dismissed on narrow and technical legal grounds. It suggested, for instance, that it was not the Department of Motor Vehicles that should be sued — even though it is the governmental agency responsible for suspending licenses — but the courts, individually. There is no question of discrimination, the state insisted, since anyone failing to pay court costs and fees is equally exposed to the sanction of license suspension.
In fact, it is plain that impoverished Virginians are more likely to have their licenses suspended, while those who can pay generally do. And those suspensions for nonpayment take place automatically, even when the affected individuals are sick or hospitalized, or have lost their job. The system thereby traps “vulnerable residents in cycles of debt from court fines and fees,” in the words of Vanita Gupta, chief of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, which filed a brief in support of the class-action lawsuit. The NAACP also filed a brief supporting the lawsuit, in which it argued that African Americans were specifically disadvantaged by the state’s practice.
Virginia’s unfair procedures were devised in service of the revenue needs of courts and localities. The result is as unlawful as it is tilted against the state’s most disadvantaged residents, and it is a distortion of justice.