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Virginia: Lawsuit Seeks To End License Suspension Over Unpaid Fees
Lawsuit argues debt-related license suspensions in Virginia trap low-income motorists in a cycle of poverty.

Suspended license
A group of Virginia motorists is asking a federal judge earlier this month to restrain state officials from suspending driver's licenses for reasons wholly unrelated to an individual's ability to drive. Their lawsuit, filed earlier this month, challenges the constitutionality of the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicle's use of license suspension as a means of collecting on speeding tickets and other fees, which totaled $618 million in 2014.

"The possession of a valid driver's license is often essential for people to secure and maintain employment, and the loss of a driver's license often results in hardship for individuals and their families," attorneys Jonathan T. Blank and Mary Bauer, wrote in their complaint. "Research has consistently found that having a driver's license can be crucial to an individual's ability to maintain a job, pursue educational opportunities, and care for family.... Suspended licenses can trap the poor in an impossible situation: inability to reinstate their licenses without gainful employment, yet inability to work without a license."

Last year, 914,450 Virginians held licenses that have been suspended over unpaid tickets, a figure that the lawyers argue is inflated by the state's failure to consider an individual's ability to pay when handing out punishment for traffic infractions. Alternatives such as community service are rarely offered, and, as a result, 41 percent of all cases end in license suspension and default, according to the Virginia state auditor.

"Very few payment plan policies consider the debtor's financial obligations in other courts when setting payment plans, which serves both as a barrier to entry and as a recipe for failure," the lawyers wrote.

The attorneys described the impact of harsh court policies on a series of defendants who held minimum wage jobs and became overwhelmed by the fines and fees they received for various minor traffic violations. To feed their families, some had no choice but to risk driving on a suspended license, which is a class one misdemeanor that can result in being jailed for a year and a $2500 fine.

In the past two decades, fines have skyrocketed as courts tacked fees on violations. In 1989, the costs imposed on all tickets amounted to just $20. Now there is a $51 fee, plus a $3 levy for courthouse construction, $10 for courthouse security, and at least $20 in other miscellaneous charges. To get his license back, a motorist has to pay all of these fees in full, plus an additional $145 reinstatement fee.

"Punishing an individual solely for his or her inability to pay violates principles of due process and fundamental fairness," the lawsuit argues.

The class action asks a judge to declare the current system unconstitutional and prohibit future license suspensions over debt. It also asks for restoration of licenses currently suspended for financial reasons.

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