After the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, the U.S. Justice Department established that Missouri police departments were systematically issuing trivial fines and court costs against their poorest citizens to raise revenue for local government functions. Missouri was not alone in this, reports Slate. In Virginia, more than 900 people have lost their driver’s licenses because they couldn’t pay the court fees associated with having them restored. That means that indigent people who may have been pulled over for the most minor of infractions can lose their license unless they pay stiff penalties.
A statewide federal class-action suit filed last week attempts to remedy this vicious cycle. The suit argues that by failing to inquire into the reason drivers can’t pay to have their licenses returned, the commonwealth is in violation of the Constitution’s “fundamental principles of due process and equal protection.” It contends that the state apparatus has become a debtors’ prison, targeting the very poorest citizens. Whether the lack of a license means you are basically confined to your home, or literally subject to jail time, you’re effectively locked up for failing to pay fines. As the suit notes, the Supreme Court has held that punishing a person just because they can’t afford to pay a fine, as opposed to a willful refusal to pay, is a violation of due process.