11/9/2016Feds Intervene In Virginia Drivers License Lawsuit
US Department of Justice says Virginia motorists should not have their licenses automatically suspended over unpaid speeding tickets.
A lawsuit seeking to overturn Virginia's policy of automatically suspending driver's licenses over unpaid speeding tickets received a massive boost on Monday. The US Department of Justice (DOJ) formally intervened in the case, declaring that the official position of the federal government is that Virginia must change its ways.
"The Constitution prohibits punishing a person for their poverty," DOJ Office for Access to Justice Director Lisa Foster said in a statement. "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?"
The commonwealth has a financial interest in continuing to suspend licenses as a means of collecting on $618 million in debt. Last year alone, 914,450 Virginians had their licenses suspended over tickets.
DOJ attorneys believe this form of payment coercion results in unequal treatment for the poor, a position on which it elaborated in a 2015 report on the predatory use of traffic tickets in Ferguson, Missouri (view report).
The agency's civil rights division argues that suspensions create a vicious cycle of debt. If a poor motorist receives a ticket beyond his ability to pay, and he misses a payment, a court clerk automatically orders his license suspended. The suspensions remains in effect until the debt is paid in full, but without a license the debtor often finds it difficult to go to work and earn the money needed to pay that debt.
"It is the position of the United States that the suspension of a person's driver's license in response to the failure to pay court debt without providing a person with adequate notice and a meaningful opportunity to be heard prior to the suspension constitutes a deprivation of a protected interest without due process in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment," the DOJ brief explains.
DOJ officials recommended that Virginia consider alternatives based on an individual's ability to pay the fine, including community service and traffic schools. Virginia officials have asked a federal judge to dismiss the lawsuit on procedural grounds.