A FEDERAL JUDGE in Virginia encapsulated the catch-22 at the heart of state laws whose effect is to punish poor defendants by confiscating their driver’s licenses if they can’t afford to pay court fines and fees — even if the crime is minor or completely unrelated to driving.
The case involved Damian Stinnie, a 24-year-old Charlottesville man diagnosed with lymphoma who became homeless after failing to pay traffic fines. Mr. Stinnie couldn’t afford the $1,000 he owed, so his license was suspended automatically. Yet without a license, he couldn’t drive legally, meaning finding and keeping a job were non-starters. “In other words,” wrote Judge Norman K. Moon of U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia, “because he cannot pay the fees, his license is suspended, but because his license is suspended, he cannot pay the fees.”
His pithy analysis notwithstanding, Mr. Moon dismissed a class-action suit brought by Mr. Stinnie and others in similarly dire straits — not because their case had no merit, but because the judge ruled that Virginia and its state courts were alone empowered to fix the problem, which, he wrote, “may very well violate Plaintiffs’ constitutional rights to due process and equal protection.”
Virginia is unfriendly terrain for poor people generally. By refusing to expand the state’s Medicaid program, lawmakers have left tens of thousands of indigent people without health insurance. By tightening voter-ID rules, the state restricted ballot access disproportionately for young and minority voters, who tend to be poorer. The state’s rules regarding driver’s license suspension are in some ways even more slanted against the neediest.
Incredibly, 1 in 6 Virginia drivers, some 977,000 in all, have lost their driver’s licenses for failing to pay court-ordered fines and fees stemming from convictions, often for misdemeanors. In many or most cases, their nonpayment is not an act of defiance; it’s a reflection of limited means.
In theory, state district courts, which are responsible for minor crime and traffic infractions, have implemented programs designed to help low-income individuals pay off court fees. That, at least, was the recommendation of Virginia’s Judicial Council in 2015. In fact, community service in lieu of payment is generally not an option in most courts, nor are sliding scales of payment tied to a defendant’s income or hourly wage.
Depriving defendants of driver’s licenses can exact a crushing burden, especially in rural and suburban parts of the state where job sites are not served by buses and trains, and Uber is nonexistent or economically out of reach — and where many poor people tend to live. And while many states suspend driving privileges routinely for nonpayment of traffic-related fees, Virginia is one of a minority that does so in cases unrelated to driving.
Federal courts may lack jurisdiction to fix Virginia’s mess, but in so ruling Mr. Moon all but begged the state to do so. Lawmakers and courts should heed his words.