By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: Mar. 13, 2018 | 12:20 p.m.
VIRGINIA – A pair of bills that would’ve brought to an end the practice of automatically suspending the driver’s license of those who have not paid court costs and fines following a conviction have died in committee in the General Assembly.
House Bill 941, introduced by Democrat Alfonso Lopez of Arlington, sought to remove the requirement that a court suspends the driver’s license of a person convicted of any violation of the law who fails or refuses to provide immediate payment of fines or costs. Instead of an automatic suspension, the bill, and an identical piece of legislation in the State Senate that also failed to gain traction would have allowed a given court, after 90 days or nonpayment and they find the failure to pay was “not an intentional refusal to obey the sentence of the court” to provide additional time for payment, reduce the amount of each payment installment, provide community service in lieu of payment, or waive the unpaid portion partially or entirely.
Despite the provisions of the failed bill, if a court found that nonpayment was intentional in an effort to disregard the court’s sentence, the judge still would still have the authority to suspend a defendant’s driver’s license until payment is made in full or until they enroll in a payment plan.
A similar bill was introduced in the Senate by Democrat Senator Adam Ebbin of Alexandria, but while in the chamber’s Committee for Courts of Justice, senators voted 15-0 to continue the measure until 2019, effectively killing the bill for the current General Assembly session.
According to a fiscal impact statement of SB578, had the measure been implemented, the grace period to pay fines and costs prior to driver’s license suspension would have been increased from 30 days to 90 days and required a show cause hearing to be held prior to the suspension of a defendant’s driver’s license.
In the report, it notes that suspended drivers pay a $145 reinstatement fee, of which $100 goes to the Trauma Center Fund and the remaining $45 goes to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, with those have multiple suspensions paying that $145 fee plus a $5 “multiple order fee for each additional order,” and a bill like this does “lowers the number persons being suspended,” which would “result in a loss of reinstatement fee revenue for DMV.”
“The amount of the loss cannot be predicted because some drivers may continue to be suspended if, after the show cause hearing, the court determines that the license should be suspended,” the report explains.
“Although DMV could absorb the loss of revenue in the short term, it is anticipated that DMV will not have enough revenues in future years to equal anticipated expenses.”
According to a fiscal impact report on a similar bill introduced during this year’s session, using Fiscal Year 2017 data, the DMV estimates it would “lose approximately $2.6 million annually in reinstatement fee revenue from this bill and deposits to the Trauma Center Fund would decrease by approximately $5.8 million annually.”
It goes on further to say in 2017, “the general district courts suspended 262,140 licenses for failure to pay fines and costs and the juvenile and domestic relations district courts suspended 13,950 licenses for failure to pay fines and costs, for a total of 276,000 license suspensions.”
Through this data, the report hypothesizes the bill could result in 276,000 additional hearings in district courts across the Commonwealth.
“However, since these cases are initiated by the courts on a motion for the defendant to show cause why the license should not be suspended and since there could be difficulties serving the motion on the defendant, it is possible that there will not be hearings in every case where there is a failure to pay fines and costs,” the report explains. “If there are additional hearings on the district courts, there may be delays. However, it is not possible to determine the fiscal impact on the judicial branch at this time.”
The conversation about automatic license suspensions for unpaid costs has been ongoing across the nation and in Virginia for the last few years following a number of reports about the effects of the practice on low-income populations who are placed in further challenging straits when their license is suspended, inhibiting their ability to get to work, and placing their source of income in jeopardy.
Speaking out in favor of the policy reform is the Virginia Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
“The ACLU of VA strongly supports repealing laws that [suspend] a person’s driver’s license for any reason unrelated to bad driving,” the organization said in a statement. “These provisions in the law disproportionately affect lower-income drivers and do nothing to improve road safety. Police have also used Driver’s License checkpoints to target minorities and immigrant communities around the Commonwealth, further increasing the disparity of how these provisions in the law are enforced.”
Bills like SB578 and HB941 come on the heels of a statement of interest filed by the U.S. Department of Justice in a case entitled Stinnie et al. v. Holcomb where the plaintiffs allege their driver’s licenses were indefinitely suspended because they did not pay court fines and costs that they could not afford.
In their statement, the Justice Department said 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 said at the time. “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.”
According to the Justice Department, roughly 900,000 people in the Commonwealth, or one in six drivers, have had their licenses suspended for failure to pay court debt, which was of great concern to the Legal Aid Justice Center, who also spoke out in favor of the proposed reforms as the General Assembly session got underway.
Pat Levy-Lavelle, an attorney at the Legal Aid Justice Center, called the state’s current license suspension policy “literally Virginia’s form of debtor’s prison” in a statement paired with the organization’s latest findings on court payment plan options.
“If you can’t drive, you can’t work, and you can’t pay,” Lavelle continued. “And if you do drive, you go to jail—and even the most generous of payment plan policies can’t save you.”
Their new report titled Driving on Empty: Payment Plan Reforms Don’t Fix Virginia’s Court Debt Crisis, looks at over 100 general district court payment policies and found, “More than [one-third] of GDC policies do not mention ability-to-pay at all. None provides any indication how it evaluates ability to pay or what that means for payment plan terms”
In addition, regarding community service in lieu of paying the monetary fines, the LAJC’s report found, “Many courts have no community service provisions (or very restrictive community service provisions), charge arbitrarily high down payments to enter plans, fail to mention the statutory right to seek modification of plans, or restrict access to subsequent payment plans for indebted Virginians who default.”
“Virginia must face head-on the constitutional imperative that inability to pay must be taken seriously, especially prior to imposing collateral consequences,” the LAJC adds. “Repealing driver’s license suspension for unpaid court debt is an important stop on that road.”
A third bill, SB181 introduced by Republican Bill Stanley of Moneta that would completely repeal the suspension requirement for those who refuse to provide immediate payment of fines while requiring the DMV to reinstate “any person’s driver’s license that was suspended prior to July 1, 2018, solely for nonpayment of fines or costs, provided that such person has paid the applicable reinstatement fee” has passed the Senate and now heads to the House of Delegates Appropriations committee for further consideration.