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Monday, November 7, 2016

Justice Department Files Brief to Address Automatic Suspensions of Driver’s Licenses for Failure to Pay Court Debt

The Justice Department filed a statement of interest today in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia addressing the constitutionality of state policies that automatically suspend the driver’s licenses of those who fail to pay court fines or fees.  The statement of interest was filed in Stinnie et al. v. Holcomb, a class action brought by four individuals whose driver’s licenses were suspended because they could not afford to pay fines, fees and costs assessed by Virginia courts.

The statement of interest advances the United States’ position that suspending a driver’s license is unconstitutional if it is done without providing due process and without assessing whether the individual’s failure to pay was willful or the result of an inability to pay.  As the Supreme Court has affirmed, the Constitution prohibits punishing a person because of his or her poverty.  The United States’ brief explains that the defendant’s alleged “practice of automatically suspending the driver’s license of any person who fails to pay outstanding court debt—without inquiring into ability to pay—violates that constitutional principle.”  Without taking into account an individual’s ability to pay, the practice results in indigent defendants having their driver’s licenses suspended because they cannot afford fines and fees, while defendants who can afford to pay do not.  The brief argues that, if the facts as alleged by plaintiffs are true, such practice violates the due process and equal protection clauses of the 14th Amendment. 

In Stinnie v. Holcomb, the plaintiffs allege that their driver’s licenses were indefinitely suspended because they did not pay court fines and costs that they could not afford.  They further allege that 900,000 people in Virginia, or one in six drivers, have had their licenses suspended for failure to pay court debt.  The department’s statement of interest in this case rests on a fundamental principle, developed in a long line of Supreme Court cases, “that conditioning access or outcomes in the justice system solely on a person’s ability to pay violates the Fourteenth Amendment.”  The brief also explains that a driver’s license is a constitutionally protected interest under clear Supreme Court precedent and that it cannot be suspended under the circumstances permitted in Virginia without adequate notice and a meaningful opportunity to be heard first.

“People depend on driver’s licenses to get to work, access health care and provide for their families – and so when their license is suspended for reasons that do not relate to public safety, it unnecessarily disrupts lives and harms communities,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Civil Rights Division.  “This brief advances the department’s robust efforts to prevent unlawful practices that punish poverty at every stage of the justice system and that trap vulnerable residents in cycles of debt from court fines and fees.”

“The Constitution prohibits punishing a person for their poverty,” said Director Lisa Foster of the Office for Access to Justice.  “Yet suspending a person’s driver’s license when they are unable to pay court debt does just that.  And it’s also counterproductive.  How can a person pay their fines and fees if they lose their job because they can’t drive to work?”

“Driver’s licenses permit individuals to work and contribute to society in positive ways,” said U.S. Attorney John P. Fishwick Jr. of the Western District of Virginia.  “It makes no sense to suspend this privilege because a person is poor.”

In recent years, the department has taken several steps to address the unequal treatment of the poor in the justice system.  In March 2015, the Civil Rights Division addressed a range of harmful practices in the enforcement of fines and fees, including the suspension of driver’s licenses to coerce payment, in its investigation of Ferguson, Missouri.  In March 2016, the division and the Office for Access to Justice sent a Dear Colleague Letter to state courts clarifying the constitutional limits on coercing payment of court debt, including through license suspensions.

Plaintiffs in Stinnie v. Holcomb filed their complaint in federal court in July.  The defendant is the commissioner of the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles.  In October, the state’s Office of the Attorney General filed a motion to dismiss the case.  In its filing, the United States does not take a position on the factual accuracy of the plaintiffs’ claims, but instead addresses the appropriate legal framework for analyzing their claims. 

16-1305
Topic: 
Civil Rights
Updated November 7, 2016