Class Action Challenges Constitutionality of Driver’s License Suspensions for Failure to Pay Court Costs and Fines
Charlottesville, Va. — This week, a diverse array of stakeholders filed three “friend-of-the-court” briefs urging the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals to reverse the trial court’s dismissal of Stinnie v. Holcomb for jurisdictional reasons. These stakeholders included civil rights and poverty law organizations from all over the country, a group of law professors, and the Institute for Justice.
Pillsbury represented the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP, which led a national group of 19 civil rights and poverty law organizations in filing one of the briefs. Their brief advised the court “regarding the important civil rights issues at stake, and the devastating impact that Virginia’s statutory license suspension scheme has had on some of the Commonwealth’s poorest citizens, especially its poor black citizens.”
Stinnie v. Holcomb is a class action lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a Virginia statute that mandates the automatic suspension of an individual’s driver’s license for the failure to timely pay court costs and fines – regardless of the reason for nonpayment. Nearly all drivers who can afford to pay their court debts to restore their licenses, or avoid suspension in the first place, do so. But those who cannot afford to pay have few meaningful alternatives that will allow them to avoid suspension or restore their licenses.
Every year, Virginia traps hundreds of thousands of low-income residents in debt and poverty by automatically suspending their driver’s licenses for failure to pay court costs and fines, regardless of whether they could afford to pay. Nearly one million Virginia drivers currently have at least one suspension on their license for failure to pay, including approximately 650,000 people whose licenses are suspended solely for not paying court costs and fines. For many drivers, that means giving up their only mode of transportation to work, forcing them to choose between losing their jobs and risking jail time for driving on a suspended license. As a result, the vast majority of these long-suffering Virginia drivers will continue to endure a never-ending cycle of debt and incarceration, so long as the law forces them to choose between driving illegally and forsaking the needs of their families. Hundreds of thousands of the poorest Virginians suffer far harsher punishments than their wealthier neighbors – for no other reason than their poverty.
“Following Pillsbury’s recent success in halting the criminalization of poverty in California’s Solano County, we have taken our fight to Virginia, which has an even more draconian policy that punishes impoverished drivers for their inability to pay court-assessed fines and fees. Shockingly, nearly one million drivers’ licenses are currently suspended in Virginia as a result of this policy – a fundamentally unfair civil rights catastrophe that primarily affects the poor,” said Pillsbury partner Thomas Loran III. “With our amicus brief, we hope to convince the courts in Virginia and elsewhere in the United States that being poor should not be a barrier to driving, an essential means of getting to work, school and medical appointments.”
In October 2016, the Virginia Attorney General’s office filed a Motion to Dismiss on behalf of the defendant, DMV Commissioner Richard D. Holcomb. Both the U.S. Department of Justice and the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP filed amicus briefs supporting the plaintiffs’ arguments that the statute is unconstitutional.
On March 13, 2017, the U.S. District Court granted the defendant’s Motion to Dismiss, citing jurisdictional reasons and concluding that the commissioner was not a proper defendant. The case is now on appeal to the Fourth Circuit.
On August 16, 2017, Pillsbury counsel Cynthia Cook Robertson of the firm’s Washington, DC office filed the amicus brief of the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP and 18 additional civil rights and poverty law organizations from across the country in support of the class action plaintiffs in their appeal before the Fourth Circuit. Robertson was joined on the brief by San Francisco partner Thomas Loran III and Washington, DC associate Robert C.K. Boyd.
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