Driving While Poor: How Unpaid Traffic Fines Land Some Motorists in Jail

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More than half a million Virginians have had their licenses suspended because they could not afford to pay accumulating court fines and fees, for something as small as a parking violation, under a Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) policy.

In what some critics say amounts to a double penalty for being poor, many of them risk jail terms when they try to earn money to pay back their debts—by driving without a license.

A push to roll back the policy by the state’s General Assembly, which returned to session this month, is gaining ground. A bill to eliminate license suspensions has passed the full Senate and will head to the House when the bills cross over next week.

At the same time, a lawsuit challenging the policy as unconstitutional is moving through the courts.

Last month, a federal judge in Charlottesville, Va., granted a preliminary injunction to stop the DMV from enforcing the policy, but only against the five plaintiffs involved in the suit.

The issue is not confined to Virginia. According to a report last year in the Washington Post, more than seven million U.S. residents may have had their driver’s licenses suspended for failure to pay court or administrative debt.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam condemned the suspensions in his address to the state legislature earlier this month.

“We shouldn’t be punishing people for being poor,” he said.

Advocates for change say poor people bear the biggest costs of the policy.

“In court […] I see all of the time people [who] are at or below the poverty level get a traffic ticket and their license is suspended if they miss one payment,” said State Senator Bill Stanley, a Republican who is also a lawyer in Franklin County.

“They’re not given notice. They’re not brought back to court,” added Stanley who has sponsored a bill to end the practice. “(The license is) just suspended.”

According to the DMV, about half of the 1,301,548 Virginians who have suspended driver’s licenses fall under the category of motorists who either can’t pay, or refuse to pay, their court fines and fees.

Critics say this is jamming up the court system and ruining lives.

“A driver’s license isn’t just a convenience, it’s a necessity,” said Amy Woolard, policy coordinator for Legal Aid Justice Center, which represents low-income Virginians.

“We have very few areas of the state with reliable public transportation that can really meet all of people’s needs.”

Woolard said those clients who need to drive in order to get to work risk 10-day jail sentences if they are caught driving with a suspended license.

She said that amounts to punishing people for not being able to pay their debts—confining them “in essence (to) a debtors’ prison.”

In a recent visit to the Chesterfield County Jail women’s unit, several inmates recounted the vicious cycle of debt that landed them behind bars.

“They expected me pay these fines or (my license) is going to be suspended again,” said inmate Tessa Pierotti. “But I can’t get to work (to earn money to pay the fines) because I can’t drive.”

Pierotti finally got her license back after agreeing to a payment plan—but when she missed one payment, the license was suspended again.

Revenue for the Courts

While the bill to scrap the DMV policy has bipartisan support in the General Assembly, not everyone thinks it’s a good idea.

Timothy Martin, Commonwealth Attorney in Augusta, Va., said suspending licenses is the only way to force people to pay fines and fees, which help pay for day-to-day court operations.

“The people who have committed the offenses won’t pay anymore and the end result will be that it will shift the burden to the taxpayer,” he said.

But Jacob Fish, with the libertarian advocacy group Americans for Prosperity, said the purpose of fines and fees shouldn’t be to generate revenue.

“This is a practice that hurts individuals,” Fish said. “It prevents them from being able to work. It prevents them from being able to reenter society.

The revenue earned from the fines, he said, is “outweighed” by giving scofflaw drivers a chance to repay without facing further legal action so they can again become “functioning members” of society.

This is an edited and condensed version of a report by Whittney Evans, a public radio reporter for WCVE News of Richmond, and a John Jay Rural Justice Reporting Fellow. To see the full story and listen to her broadcast report, please click here.

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