Virginia’s Automatic License Suspension for Unpaid Fines Found Unconstitutional
Under Virginia’s current law, individuals who do not pay court costs and fines can have their driver’s licenses automatically suspended without a chance to appeal and for an indefinite period of time. The individuals receive notice of the possible suspension through a form that states their failure to pay court costs or fines will result in losing their licenses. However, they receive little else in the way of information regarding the situation and how to avoid it. There are no hearings to determine if individuals can afford to pay the debt or to inform them about alternatives like payment plans. The only way for people to get their driver’s licenses back is to somehow pay off the costs. However, things are about to change. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) issued a brief finding the law unconstitutional and the Virginia Supreme Law drafted a new rule to focus on payment plans instead of license suspensions.
Stinnie v. Holcomb
It is clear to see the issues arising from this law. Not only are automatic license suspensions ineffective in helping the state or municipalities collect costs, but they also disproportionately affect black and poor drivers. This led the Legal Aid Justice Center to file a class action lawsuit against Richard D. Holcomb, the commissioner of the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, on behalf of the approximately 1 million Virginia drivers who have lost their licenses for unpaid fees. The suit was filed in July, in federal court for the Western District of Virginia.
The Legal Aid Justice Center and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which filed a brief in the case, argue that the automatic suspension without a hearing or the ability to prove that the defendant is indigent violates individual’s constitutional right to due process and equal protection under the 14th Amendment.
The DOJ Steps in
In November, the DOJ filed a brief in Stinnie v. Holcomb regarding its findings about Virginia’s automatic license suspension law for unpaid fines and fees. The DOJ found the law was unconstitutional because it did not provide due process or the opportunity to assess a person’s ability and willingness to pay. The result of this law is that indigent people are punished for being unable to afford court costs and fines.
“The Constitution prohibits punishing a person for their poverty,” said Director Lisa Foster of the Office for Access to Justice at the DOJ. “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?”
Virginia Supreme Court Tries to Remedy the Situation
Also in November, the Virginia Supreme Court issued a new rule that will become effective Feb. 1, 2017. The new rule requires courts to use deferred or payment plans to collect fines and court costs. If a defendant is found to be unable to pay court costs, traffic or criminal fines, or restitution within 30 days of the order must be offered a deferred payment plan or an installment plan with a down payment of no more than 20 percent. However, if the defendant owes more than $500, the down payment must be 10 percent or less.
Additionally, community service instead of fines and costs has always been an option. The state Supreme Court wants community service to be offered more liberally than is the current practice.
Contact a Leesburg Criminal Defense Attorney for Help
If your driver’s license has been suspended because you cannot afford to pay fees or fines you owe the courts, you need an attorney who can help you set up a payment plan and get your license reinstated as soon as possible. Contact the Leesburg lawyers of Whitbeck Cisneros McElroy PC at 703-997-4982.