DOJ calls state driver’s license suspension law unconstitutional

By Michael Campbell News Editor

The Department of Justice has issued a statement on the controversial practice of suspending driver’s licenses over failure to pay court fines and fees, calling the action “unconstitutional.”

In a news release, the DOJ said they have filed a statement of interest in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia addressing the constitutionality of state policies that automatically suspend the driver’s licenses of those who fail to pay court fines or fees, which was filed in the class action Stinnie et al. v. Holcomb.

According to the DOJ, in Stinnie v. Holcomb, the plaintiffs allege that their driver’s licenses were indefinitely suspended because they did not pay court fines and costs that they could not afford.  

They further allege that 900,000 people in Virginia, or one in six drivers, have had their licenses suspended for failure to pay court debt.

Courts in the commonwealth are granted the authority to suspend licenses thanks to the Code of Virginia and §42.2-395 titled, “Suspension of license for failure or refusal to pay fines or costs.”

In that section, it states, “Any person, whether licensed by Virginia or not, who drives a motor vehicle on the highways in the Commonwealth” is required as a condition of driving to pay all fines, court costs, restitution and penalties against them for violations of local, state or national law.

It goes on to say that anyone who “fails or refuses” to make immediate payment in full or make deferred or installment payments as ordered by the court on any fines or fees, the court “shall suspend the person’s privilege to drive a motor vehicle on the highways of the Commonwealth.”

Their license will remain suspended until full payment is made or, if the defendant pays the reinstatement fee to the Department of Motor Vehicles and enters into an agreement for deferred or installment payments that is acceptable to the courts, their license can be restored.

Officials with the Legal Aid Justice Center argue this law affects low-income drivers disproportionately, a sentiment shared by U.S. Attorney John P. Fishwick Jr. of the Western District of Virginia.

“Driver’s licenses permit individuals to work and contribute to society in positive ways,” said Fishwick.  “It makes no sense to suspend this privilege because a person is poor.”

For the Department of Justice, their position rests on “a fundamental principle, developed in a long line of Supreme Court cases, ‘that conditioning access or outcomes in the justice system solely on a person’s ability to pay violates the Fourteenth Amendment.’”

The DOJ’s brief also explains that a driver’s license is a constitutionally protected interest under clear Supreme Court precedent and that it cannot be suspended under the circumstances permitted in Virginia without adequate notice and a meaningful opportunity to be heard first.

“People depend on driver’s licenses to get to work, access health care and provide for their families – and so when their license is suspended for reasons that do not relate to public safety, it unnecessarily disrupts lives and harms communities,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Civil Rights Division.  “This brief advances the department’s robust efforts to prevent unlawful practices that punish poverty at every stage of the justice system and that trap vulnerable residents in cycles of debt from court fines and fees.”

In a May 2016 report, the LAJC reported in FY2015, “the DMV issued 366,773 orders of driver’s license suspension resulting from unpaid court costs or fines,” adding that “more than a third of [those] (38 percent) were for failure to pay costs and fines assessed for offenses wholly unrelated to driving.”

“These low-income drivers lose their licenses after they fail to either pay in full within 30 days of sentencing or establish a payment plan within the same time period and maintain it,” they explained. “For many drivers that means giving up their only mode of transportation to work and forcing them to choose between losing their jobs and risking incarceration for driving illegally.”

In May of 2015, the Judicial Council, a policy-making body for Virginia courts, made a series of recommendations that were created to help aid courts in the creation and establishment of their own written policies for “determining the conditions of deferred or installment payment agreements for a defendant owing fines and costs.”

In those recommendations, they urged courts to courts to develop policies and establish payment plans that “facilitate payment by defendants of these financial obligations so as to avoid the suspension of driver’s licenses or other sanctions.”

According to the LAJC’s report, General District courts in Dinwiddie, Prince George, Sussex and Surry counties have policies that “do not specify that the court collects detailed information about the debtor’s financial condition,” that “do not require the court to consider any potential financial obligations that the debtor has to other courts and “do not mention community service as a substitute for payment [of] court costs and fines.”

Additionally, the LAJC’s analysis shows policies at General District courts in those four counties “require down payment on deferred payment plans after a default.”

The DOJ’s brief goes on to argue that a driver’s license is a constitutionally protected interest under clear Supreme Court precedent and that it cannot be suspended under the circumstances permitted in Virginia without adequate notice and a meaningful opportunity to be heard first.

“The Constitution prohibits punishing a person for their poverty,” said Director Lisa Foster of the Office for Access to Justice.  “Yet suspending a person’s driver’s license when they are unable to pay court debt does just that.  And it’s also counterproductive.  How can a person pay their fines and fees if they lose their job because they can’t drive to work?”

This is not the first time that the Department of Justice has voiced concern about unequal treatment of the poor in the justice system.

In March 2015, the Civil Rights Division addressed a range of harmful practices in the enforcement of fines and fees, including the suspension of driver’s licenses to coerce payment, in its investigation of Ferguson, Missouri.  

One year later, the division and the Office for Access to Justice sent a Dear Colleague Letter to state courts clarifying the constitutional limits on coercing payment of court debt, including through license suspensions.

In terms of Stinnie v. Holcomb, the DOJ reports since it’s initial filing in July, the Office of the Attorney General, led by Mark Herring, has filed a motion to have the case dismissed.

The United States’ stressed in their filing that they are not taking a position on the “factual accuracy of the plaintiff’s claims, but instead address the appropriate legal framework for analyzing their claims.”

Copyright 2016 by Womack Publications