A federal judge in Charlottesville has granted an injunction to prevent the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles from enforcing a state law that requires automatic suspension of driver’s licenses for failure to pay court fines and costs.
The judge also required the agency to reinstate the licenses of three plaintiffs and refrain from suspending those of two others.
U.S. District Judge Norman K. Moon issued the injunction on Friday against DMV Commissioner Rick Holcomb, whom he ordered to cease enforcing the agency policy against the five plaintiffs, remove suspensions on their licenses and refrain from charging a $145 fee to reinstate their driving privileges.
The ruling in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia came three days after Gov. Ralph Northam publicly denounced the agency policy and provided money in his proposed budget to compensate for the loss of money from the reinstatement fee that is used to fund trauma centers.
“Today’s ruling is a victory for the Constitution and for common sense. The court stated unequivocally that Virginia’s driver’s license suspension statute likely violates procedural due process rights,” said Angela Ciolfi, executive director of the Legal Aid Justice Center, which joined with the McGuireWoods law firm in contesting the law’s constitutionality.
“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 said. “It is time to end the devastating cycle of debt, unemployment and incarceration once and for all.”
The 23-page decision found that the five plaintiffs have a strong chance of winning their argument that the DMV policy violates the U.S. Constitution’s protection of 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.
The judge also justified the preliminary injunction by saying enforcement of the law causes irreparable harm.
Damian Stinnie was taking out a loan to pay his court fines and costs, but was convicted of driving on a suspended license in order to keep “essential medical appointments” before settling his debt. “Money could not solve the injury Plaintiff Stinnie suffered, the suspension of his license made it impracticable, if not impossible, for him to carry out necessary tasks, and payment of underlying court fines and costs did not alleviate his situation,” Moon wrote.
Adrainne Johnson, a Charlottesville mother of three children, testified she is unable to drive her daughter to medical appointments or attend her son’s athletic events, and has lost one job and been denied another because of her license suspension.
Melissa Adams, who suffers from a rare blood disorder, testified she cannot drive to her chemotherapy appointments, her son’s medical specialist, or to and from work.
“The only remedy for plaintiffs’ injury is restoration of their licenses and the prevention of further suspensions” under state law, Moon wrote.
The two other plaintiffs, Williest Bandy and Brianna Morgan, have previously had their licenses suspended and then reinstated, but the ruling said “both face imminent suspension because they cannot afford the payments required by their payment plans.”
Northam said this week that he has proposed to use $8.9 million from the general fund budget to protect funding for trauma centers so that the state can forgo the license reinstatement fees.
“No longer will Virginia suspend driver’s licenses for unpaid court costs and fees,” the governor told the General Assembly money committees on Tuesday.
Attorney General Mark Herring’s office is defending DMV in the suit, but spokesman Michael Kelly said Friday, “As a policy matter, Attorney General Herring still supports Governor Northam’s efforts to end this practice legislatively and hopes the General Assembly will support the governor’s efforts.”
“We will take the time needed to consider the judge’s opinion before deciding how best to proceed in the case,” Kelly said.