Va. denies driver’s license suspensions are unfair

WASHINGTON — While a class-action lawsuit alleges Virginia’s suspension of driver’s licenses of indigent residents amounts to an “unconstitutional scheme that unfairly punishes them for being poor,” the state says although the claim “could appear sympathetic,” the law is the law.

In a federal lawsuit, filed in July in the Western District of Virginia, four plaintiffs claimed Virginia’s policy of suspending driver’s licenses is unfair, and affects a large swath of residents.

According to the suit, “In 2015, DMV ran a report showing that the license of 914,450 individual DMV customers were suspended for nonpayment of court costs and fines related to criminal and traffic convictions.”

For that snapshot of time, “approximately one in six Virginia drivers were unable to legally drive a car to and from work, to buy groceries, attend medical appointments, or go anywhere else the needs of their families required,” the suit claimed.

The suit was filed by the Legal Aid Justice Center, which represents low-income Virginians.

The claim is based on the 14th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which forbids states from denying any person “life, liberty or property, without due process of law” or to “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

Some of the plaintiffs lost their homes and jobs because they were unable to pay outstanding court costs.

In its complaint, the advocacy group argues the Commonwealth’s system imposes significant hardships on debtors and their families: “Often forcing them to choose between paying for survival resources such as food, shelter, health care, and clothing, or paying their court costs and fines.”

On Monday, lawyers for Virginia asked the judge to throw out the lawsuit.

“Though Plaintiffs’ case could appear sympathetic from a policy perspective, it fails when viewed from a legal one,” argued the state, in a motion to dismiss.

Lawyers representing Virginia Dept. of Motor Vehicles Commissioner Richard Holcomb wrote that while plaintiffs face challenges, the DMV isn’t responsible.

“Although Plaintiffs have set forth what could be described as a persuasive argument that courts should give indigent criminal defendants greater latitude with respect to the imposition or repayment of fines and costs, what they have presented is, at its heart, a policy argument — and this is not a policy-making forum,” according to the motion.

In its argument, the state said its DMV policy regarding suspensions is similar to policies in dozens of other states.

The judge ordered both sides to choose dates for a bench trial.

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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