Va. law that seizes licenses for unpaid court debt appears doomed. Good riddance.

December 16, 2019 12:05 am

A sample drivers license provided by the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles.

You’re driving along when blue strobes begin flashing not too far off your rear bumper and you pull to the side of the road. It’s a busted taillight, maybe expired tags or driving a few miles per hour over the speed limit. “License and registration please.”

You know the drill.

For most Virginians, it’s a nuisance. Pay a fine, take a hit on your car insurance premiums and it’s over. 

For about a million Virginians with little money — about one in every six motorists — it’s been a very different experience. A state law that mandates license suspensions for delinquent court debts draws them ever deeper into an inky whirlpool of joblessness, worsening financial ruin, despair and even jail. About two-thirds of the suspensions are suspended solely for nonpayment, not for any traffic offense

For Brianna Morgan, 33, the combined fines, court costs and accrued interest topped $600 — an impossible sum to repay for an unemployed, disabled mother of three.

“It came down to ‘If I pay this, I can’t eat for a month,’ or ‘If I pay this, I can’t buy diapers for my baby,’” said Morgan, a named plaintiff in a pending federal lawsuit challenging Virginia’s license suspension law. “I don’t want to say that it’s life or death, but it’s very similar.” 

Dire necessity forced her to drive to the grocery or to doctors’ appointments despite her suspended license, as countless other people trapped in the same situation have done. Using backroads and driving cautiously, she avoided being stopped for unlicensed driving. Many aren’t so lucky. Those who do risk incarceration.

There is a good chance that 2020 will see the permanent demise of the law, thanks to the efforts of lawyers, legislators and advocates for the rights of those in poverty. At the forefront has been Amy Woolard of the Charlottesville-based Legal Aid Justice Center

Virginia’s law not only singles out Virginia’s most economically vulnerable people, she said, “it forces people with suspended licenses to go into court and endure a shameful and explicit process.”

“I was pulled over a few years ago and ticketed for a broken taillight, which is a common traffic stop for our clients too,” Woolard said. “I was able to go online and immediately pay my ticket with a debit card in the privacy of my own home. I never had to step foot in a courtroom, answer to a prosecutor or a judge or figure out what to do if I didn’t have the money.”

That, she argues, sets up a disparate and unjust system for clients such as hers. 

Woolard and the LAJC, with pro bono support from McGuireWoods, have sued to challenge the law’s constitutionality. U.S. District Judge Norman Moon in Charlottesville rejected a motion by the state to dismiss the lawsuit earlier this year but stayed the litigation pending the end of the 2020 Virginia General Assembly.

That’s because companion bills to repeal the law have been filed for the new legislative session in the Senate by Republican Bill Stanley and in the House by Democrat Jennifer Caroll Foy. 

It’s the third consecutive year Stanley has sponsored legislation to wipe the statute from Virginia’s books. Previous attempts died in House subcommittees, done in by fellow Republicans.

“As a lawyer, I had situations all the time with clients who couldn’t pay fines and it just wrecks their lives,” said Stanley, whose practice, based in Moneta, serves clients in one of Virginia’s most economically challenged regions. 

He likens the mandated license suspensions to a debtor’s prison without walls — interminable punishment, not for a willful violation but for hardships often beyond an individual’s control. He saw how needs as elemental as food and health care forced people with suspended licenses to drive stealthily, sometimes in the pre-dawn gloom, along little-used highways in hopes of avoiding law enforcement and worsening their already hopeless circumstances.

”These are people who were living in the shadows,” he said.

Foy, the first public defender elected to the General Assembly, sees clients like that almost daily.

“It starts a perpetual cycle in Virginia,” said Foy, who represents suburban Prince William County. “It criminalizes poverty. The rich don’t have to worry about whether to risk driving their car to get food or medical attention and getting arrested and sent to jail.”

After Stanley saw his repeal bill killed earlier this year, he enlisted an unlikely ally, Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, to temporarily block license suspensions through a gubernatorial amendment to the state budget. While budget provisions can supersede Virginia’s statutory law, they also expire at the end of the fiscal year, so unless the legislature permanently repeals the statute or the court strikes it down, the suspensions could resume on July 1.

Prospects for a legislative repeal brightened last month for Stanley and Foy when Democrats swept the legislative elections and took control of the House and Senate, taking away the GOP’s ability to quietly kill the bill. Foy said the legislation enjoys broad support within the Democratic caucus, and Stanley notes it has backing from the conservative Americans for Prosperity. 

“This law creates in the commonwealth a class of people who become more dependent on government because they can’t be employed since they don’t have licenses. It takes away property and freedom without the due process of law, and that should send shivers down every conservative’s spine,” Stanley said. 

If Virginia enacts the repeal, it would become the seventh state that does not withhold driving privileges for unpaid court debts, joining California, Idaho, Kentucky, Mississippi, Montana and Wyoming. Virginia and five other states currently have temporary or partial license suspension reforms, according to Free to Drive, a coalition of advocacy groups as ideologically varied as the Southern Poverty Law Center and Koch Industries.

Life has improved for Morgan since Judge Moon, in a preliminary ruling in her case, ordered Virginia to restore her driver’s license. 

“This practice, it is barbaric,” she said. “Things are better now. I can use my vehicle and move around, take care of basic daily things like going to the doctor’s office, to the grocery, taking my kids to school. Those are things I was not able to do.”

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow on Mastodon: @[email protected]