FREDERICKSBURG, Va. - A lawsuit against the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles alleges the state is trapping the poor in a cycle of poverty by suspending driver’s licenses of those who can’t afford to pay court fees and fines.
The suit was filed earlier this month by the Legal Aid Justice Center, a nonprofit law group that takes on issues for the poor. It says nearly a million Virginians have lost driving privileges for failing to pay up.
“It’s important to keep in mind the suspensions we’re talking about are not suspensions that are part of a sentence for being unsafe behind the wheel, like a DUI suspension or reckless driving suspension,” said Pat Levy-Lavelle, an attorney with the Legal Aid Justice Center. “These instead are suspensions because people don’t or can’t pay whatever fines or fees are associated with these cases.”
Richmond resident Robert Taylor is one of four plaintiffs named in the lawsuit. He said his troubles started when he was cited for improper license plates a few years ago and then got pulled over for running a red light. He said he couldn’t afford the court costs and wasn’t offered a reasonable payment plan for his income. Then he found out his license was suspended.
“All I wanted to do is go to work so I could afford to pay my rent and also pay what I owe the court,” said Taylor. “And it just spiraled after that. I ended up losing my job, I got sick, I ended up in jail.”
He was jailed because he was busted more than once driving with a suspended license, which he said was while trying to get to work.
Levy-Lavelle said Virginia is one of a handful of states that will indefinitely suspend a driver’s license for both criminal and traffic court debt.
“Driver’s license suspension in Virginia is really Virginia’s form of debtors’ prison,” he said. “In a lot of areas, if you don’t have a car or you don’t have a license, you’re not going places, and so you’re functionally stuck in space. You may not be behind bars until you drive with a suspended license, but short of that, you can’t go places, you can’t hold down a job, can’t get to medical appointments, can’t get your kids to school.”
The Virginia attorney general has not yet responded to the lawsuit.
“We do not have any comment on the complaint at this time. We are closely reviewing the complaint with our client and will file a response in due course,” said an email from spokesman Michael Kelly.
Taylor has stopped trying to drive, and he said it has seriously limited employment opportunities. He has been without a job for about a year. He is hopeful this lawsuit will drive change.
“Being a person who never thought he ever would go to jail, who went to jail, there are a lot of people who, if they got a little bit of help or a little bit of leniency when they needed it, they never would have ended up there,” Taylor said. “If we do things slightly differently, people like me and people like them could do a lot better.”