A federal class-action lawsuit filed Wednesday is challenging Virginia’s system of suspending driver’s licenses of people too poor to pay their court costs and fines.
The complaint alleges that the failure to take into account reasons for nonpayment or to consider debtors’ financial circumstances before suspending their licenses is discriminatory and in violation of constitutional protections.
Offenders who are more affluent can pay in order to avoid suspensions, but many low-income people cannot and get trapped in a vicious cycle when deprived of transportation to jobs, so they cannot make money to pay their financial obligations to the courts, alleges the lawsuit filed by the Charlottesville-based Legal Aid Justice Center.
A spokesman for the Virginia Attorney General’s Office declined to comment on the lawsuit Wednesday.
“We will review the complaint closely with our client agencies and respond appropriately,” spokesman Michael Kelly said.
The 56-page complaint was filed in U.S. District Court in Charlottesville against the commissioner of the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles on behalf of four people with suspended licenses who represent others “similarly situated.”
It states that Virginia relies on driver’s license suspension to coerce payment of money owed the court.
“Those who can afford to pay, generally do,” the lawsuit says. But, the complaint continues: “Hundreds of thousands of people have lost their licenses simply because they are too poor to pay, effectively depriving them of reliable, lawful transportation.”
A recent analysis by the justice center said people have 30 days to pay costs and fines in full or establish a payment plan. Low-income drivers struggle to meet the minimum down payments or monthly payments required, get their license suspended and are therefore punished more harshly than someone who can pay, according to the center.
Each court has its own procedure for establishing a payment plan. Last year 1 in 6 state drivers, 900,000 people, had suspended licenses because of one or more unpaid court costs, the center said.
The center reported that most Virginia general district courts are disregarding recommendations made last summer by the Judicial Council of Virginia aimed at helping low-income residents pay off court costs and fines.
According to the center, a person convicted of reckless driving in Virginia risks no more than a six-month suspension of their license, while a person who fails to pay court costs faces an indefinite license suspension, often lasting years.
In the year that ended June 30, 2015, the DMV issued 366,773 orders of driver’s license suspensions resulting from unpaid court costs or fines, more than a third of them for offenses unrelated to driving.