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Virginia will no longer suspend driver’s licenses for unpaid court costs and fees

A federal judge has ordered Virginia to reinstate the licenses of drivers whom the state sought to punish for unpaid court fines.

In the 23-page opinion Friday, U.S. District Judge Norman Moon called it likely that the state’s license-revocation scheme violates due-process rights.

“While the court recognizes the commonwealth’s interest in ensuring the collection of court fines and costs, these interests are not furthered by a license suspension scheme that neither considers an individual’s ability to pay nor provides him with an opportunity to be heard on the matter,” Moon wrote, pairing his ruling with a preliminary injunction.

More than 600,000 Virginians had their driver’s licenses suspended because of unpaid fines as of Dec. 1 — and backlash over the system led Governor Ralph Northam to call for the law’s repeal.

“No longer will Virginia suspend driver’s licenses for unpaid court costs and fees,” Northam said on Dec. 18. “Often, people don’t pay court costs because they can’t afford it. Suspending their license for these unpaid fees makes it that much harder on them.”

Advocates have long criticized such laws as furthering the cycle of poverty.

In a 2017 brief filed supporting the Virginia case, Leslie Mehta, legal director of the ACLU of Virginia, explained how those who lose their licenses for failure to pay fines would in turn have more difficulty getting to work, where they could earn money to repay their debts.

“Suspending driver’s licenses for failure to pay without notice or hearing, nor any inquiry into whether that failure was willful or because of an inability to pay, as the commissioner has done here, unfairly penalizes indigent persons because of their poverty and thus violates the due process and equal protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment,” she said.

Among those to praise Moon’s opinion Friday were the Virginia-based Legal Aid Justice Center, which argued on behalf of those who lost their licenses due to court fines. Angela Ciolfi, executive director of the legal group, applauded Northam and the bipartisan legislators who have proposed a bill for the 2019 legislative session that would roll back the law.

“This week, two branches of state government have weighed in against continued enforcement of this counterproductive policy, and there is strong bipartisan support for repeal in the General Assembly,” Ciolfi wrote. “It is time to end the devastating cycle of debt, unemployment, and incarceration once and for all.”

The legal group identifies Virginia as one of 43 states that have such a nonpayment scheme, which impacts as many as 7 million Americans. But civil rights groups are fighting back with challenges filed, or set to be filed, in six other states including California, Michigan and Montana.

A filing in Tennessee yielded a similar injunction in July of this year. An estimated 146,000 Tennesseans were eligible to have their licenses reinstated following that ruling which struck a 2012 law enabling the scheme.

But the impact from collected court fines, and those not collected, can be significant.

According to a 2013 review of such fees published by the state’s Auditor of Public Accounts, Virginia loses about $170 million to uncollected court fees every year.

This article first appeared at Courthouse News.