AN ASTONISHING number of Virginians have had their driver’s licenses suspended, and about two-thirds of them — some 940,000 people, or 1 in 6 of the state’s drivers — have suffered that sanction for failing to pay court-ordered fines and fees stemming from convictions, often for misdemeanors. The trouble is that many or most are indigent, meaning their failure to pay, which can also result in jail time, arises not from indifference or defiance but from financial inability. Thus has Virginia criminalized poverty.
Nationally, courts have become part of a pervasive problem by imposing debilitating fines and fees, frequently in service of revenue-hungry states and localities. Yet Virginia has gone a step further and a rung lower. It is one of a minority of states that suspend driving privileges — in most cases, automatically — for failing to pay court costs and fines arising from offenses completely unrelated to driving.
Often, in a state where huge numbers of job sites are unserved by public transportation, the result is that drivers are left with a Faustian choice: risk jail time for driving without a valid license or sacrifice their ability to support themselves and their families.
The Obama administration has warned courts and judges that they may run afoul of the Constitution by imposing fines and fees without regard to defendants’ ability to pay. In Virginia, state law requires courts to establish payment plans for impoverished defendants. But in practice, the schemes are inconsistent from locality to locality and, in many cases, a work in progress. Community service in lieu of payment is generally not an option; nor are creative means of assessing payment amounts, such as multiples of an individual’s hourly wage.
A nonprofit group, the Legal Aid Justice Center, has filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court, alleging that Virginia’s practice of depriving many of its neediest residents of licenses has the effect of trapping them in debt and poverty. The lawsuit notes that an analysis of the state’s district courts, which handle minor criminal and traffic cases, indicates that most have not adopted programs designed to help low-income residents pay off court costs and fines, as the state’s Judicial Council recommended last year. And Virginia’s Department of Motor Vehicles does nothing to assess drivers’ financial circumstances or ability to pay before suspending their licenses.
The senselessness of the state’s penalty structure is apparent. A conviction for reckless driving carries no more than a six-month license suspension. Yet someone who fails to pay court costs — including for a range of minor offenses unrelated to driving — faces an indefinite suspension, which may last years. People convicted a third time of driving on a suspended license — and most such convictions stem from suspensions based on a failure to pay — face a mandatory minimum of 10 days of jail time. That’s on top of an up to $2,500 fine that would only plunge destitute people further into debt.
It’s folly to treat poverty as a crime. It’s also unconstitutional.