In voting to end the practice of suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid court fines and fees, Virginia lawmakers paved the way for as many as 13,000 local residents to have their driver’s licenses reinstated July 1.
That’s according to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, which says more than 627,000 Virginia residents have had their driver’s licenses suspended due to their failure to pay court fees, which can be out of reach for low-income residents.
More than 10,000 Prince William County residents currently have suspended driver’s licenses for unpaid fines and fees for both motor-vehicle-related and non-motor-vehicle-related infractions.
The same is true of about 1,000 residents of Fauquier County; 6,000 residents of the City of Manassas; and 772 residents of the City of Manassas Park, according to DMV spokeswoman Brandy Brubaker.
Exactly how many will be eligible to reinstate their licenses without paying those costs or the state’s $145 reinstatement fee – which has now been waived – will depend on individual circumstances.
But those whose licenses have been made invalid solely because of court fines and fees should be eligible, Brubaker said.
Veto session vote caps long effort against suspensions
The act of suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid court costs has long been considered a counterproductive policy for Virginia residents who find themselves saddled with hundreds or even thousands for charges completely unrelated to driving.
Measures to stop the practice, which is said to disproportionately affect minority residents, had bipartisan support this year and was pushed by several advocacy groups, including the Legal Aid Justice Center and Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement.
A bill to do so sponsored by state Sen. Bill Stanley, R-20th, whose district includes parts of Southside Virginia, passed in the Senate but failed to emerge from a House of Delegates’ subcommittee. That left the matter dead until Gov. Ralph Northam (D) revived it as a budget amendment during the lawmakers’ April 3 veto session.
Northam proposed adjusting the budget to redirect $9 million to offset the unpaid fees. The measure will also prevent the state’s courts from suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid court costs for one year. State lawmakers will have to vote again on the matter in 2020.
Northam’s budget amendment passed both houses by a large margin. The vote was 70-29 in the House of Delegates and 30-8 in the state Senate. Among local lawmakers, only Sen. Richard Stuart, R-28th, voted against the bill.
Foy: Vote is a game-changer
Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-2nd, who represents parts of Prince William and Stafford counties, called the measure a “game changer.”
As an attorney and public defender, Foy said she has represented several clients who have lost their licenses because they can’t pay court fines and then end up re-arrested for driving anyway. For most, driving is a necessity to get to work or take their kids to school or doctor’s appointments, Foy said.
Those arrested for driving without a license face up to 12 months in jail.
Foy said she has had clients with fines as low as $200 that they simply cannot afford to pay. Those with more complicated cases, necessitating multiple court hearings, can have fines in the thousands. Either way, they are prohibitive for her low-income clients, Foy said.
“It’s hard because a lot of people don’t have the life experience to understand there are some individuals out there who just can’t afford $200 [in court fines],” she said.
Northam called the elimination of the license-suspension policy “another great step forward on criminal justice reform,” after lawmakers wrapped their one-day session to consider the governor’s vetoes and proposed amendments.
“This inequitable policy criminalizes poverty and a change was long overdue,” Northam said in a statement.
Reach Jill Palermo at email@example.com