Pubdate: Mon, 12 Dec 2016
Source: Roanoke Times (VA)
Copyright: 2016 Roanoke Times
Author: Frank Green


RICHMOND - About 38,000 times each year, driving privileges are
stripped from Virginians - not for traffic offenses, but instead for
drug offenses.

Dubbed a relic of the war on drugs, Virginia law automatically
suspends the licenses of anyone convicted of even minor drug offenses,
reports a new Prison Policy Initiative study.

The study contends the law is counterproductive and unnecessarily
burdens low-income offenders by limiting their ability to get or keep
a job to pay court fines and costs or child support.

The automatic suspensions for drug offenses also are said to
jeopardize public safety - people with suspended licenses caught
driving fall deeper into the justice system while police, the courts
and the Department of Motor Vehicles are tied up dealing with
suspensions unrelated to traffic law enforcement.

Driver's license suspensions in Virginia already were in the spotlight
from other developments this year:

* A class action lawsuit filed in federal court by the
Charlottesville-based Legal Aid Justice Center alleges the license
suspensions of Virginians unable to pay court fines and costs - when
those who can afford to pay keep their licenses - is discriminatory
and violates constitutional protections.

* A new rule quietly adopted by the Virginia Supreme Court that takes
effect in February offers some relief to offenders by requiring all
courts in the state to offer defendants unable to pay court fines and
costs within 30 days deferred or installment payment plans before
suspending their licenses.

The new study, "Reinstating Common Sense: How driver's license 
suspensions for drug offenses unrelated to driving are falling out of 
favor," says that in 1991, Congress threatened states with a loss of 
federal highway funds if they did not automatically suspend the licenses 
of drug offenders.

Today, only Washington, D.C., Virginia and 11 other states still
automatically suspend licenses - a total of 190,000 a year.

The study reports that in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2015,
there were 38,849 suspensions in Virginia for drug convictions
unrelated to driving and a similar number the previous year.

According to the Department of Motor Vehicles, there were 38,130 in
the year that ended June 30, 2016. The department said "orders issued"
does not equal the total number of customers, since some may have
received more than one order.

"While a majority of states have opted out of the federal law, 12
states and Washington, D.C., have continued to hurt their own citizens
with these needless license suspensions," said Joshua Aiken with the
Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group.

Aiken said, "The report finds that the burden of these suspensions
falls most heavily on low-income people and people of color."

The Prison Policy Initiative agrees that possessing a driver's license
should reflect responsible driving and that license suspensions are a
logical tool for enforcing laws against reckless driving, leaving the
scene of a crash and other driving offenses.

But the group complains that nationally, 40 percent of license
suspensions were for reasons not related to driving.

"In some states, littering, burning trash, skipping school and unpaid
student loans result in driver's license suspensions. Most states
suspend driver's licenses for unpaid court fines and fees and failure
to pay child support," the report said.

According to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, a snapshot of
the number and types of license suspensions, as of Sept. 3, shows
there were 10,869 for non-motor vehicle drug suspensions; 20,746 for
failure to satisfy court judgments; and 7,989 for failure to pay child

In court papers filed this year, the Virginia Attorney General's
Office said the suspension of licenses to protect highway safety is a
legitimate governmental purpose and so are suspensions for failure to
pay court fines and costs, because they assist courts in enforcing
court orders.

Concerning suspension for nondriver-related issues, Richmond
Commonwealth's Attorney Michael Herring concedes, "There is wide
disagreement on the effectiveness of the sanction. Some say it is
regressive and results in disparate impact on the disadvantaged."

And, he said, "I tend to agree."

A DMV spokeswoman explained that state law automatically requires the
department to revoke administratively the "driving privilege" for six
months for someone convicted of any nondriving drug crime - even a
misdemeanor possession charge with no jail time.

Defendants can apply to the court for a restricted license that
permits driving to work, for example. The department said that of the
38,000 drug-related suspensions in the year that ended June 30, 10,450
were granted restricted privileges at the time of the

The Prison Policy Initiative argues that restricted licenses are not a
substantive solution to unnecessarily suspended licenses. In some
states, the process for winning a restricted license can be longer
than the suspension.

In the past three years, five state legislatures - in Ohio,
Massachusetts, Georgia, Delaware and Indiana - have voted to abolish
automatic suspensions, the study says.

At least one related bill has been filed for the upcoming General
Assembly session in Virginia.

Introduced by state Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, the proposal would
not strip adults convicted of simple marijuana possession of their
license. It would be contingent on written assurance from the U.S.
Department of Transportation that Virginia will not lose any federal

The Prison Policy Initiative study notes that a 2013 best practices
guide by the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators
reported: "It was estimated that as many as three-fourths of suspended
or revoked drivers continue to drive. This fact indicates that driver
license suspension is no longer the solution to enforce

"The costs of arresting, processing, administering and enforcing
social nonconformance-related driver license suspensions create a
significant strain on budgets and other resources and detract from
highway and public safety priorities," the association wrote.

The guide recommends that state legislators repeal laws requiring the
suspension of licenses for nontraffic safety reasons.

Angela Ciolfi, senior attorney with the Legal Aid Justice Center,
which filed the class action suit on behalf of four plaintiffs in
July, said their case is solely about suspensions for failure to pay
court debt due to the inability to pay - and not suspension as a
result of sentencing for drugs or any other reason.

"We are focused on the punishment of poverty as such and the cascading
harms that flow from driving people further into debt when they can't
meet their basic needs," she said.

Among other things, the suit alleges that courts issuing suspensions
for failure to pay court costs and fines fail to take into account a
debtor's ability to pay.

The justice center said that in the year that ended June 30, 2015, the
Virginia DMV issued 366,773 orders of driver's license suspensions
resulting from unpaid court fines or costs - more than one-third of
which were for offenses unrelated to driving.

Most of those affected are low-income drivers.

The loss of a license can mean the loss of the only way to reach work.
As a result, many people are forced to choose between losing their
jobs or risking getting locked up for driving illegally.

Last month, the U.S. Department of Justice waded into the case by
filing a brief that contends 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.

In its response opposing the suit, the Virginia Attorney General's
Office wrote that under Virginia law, "any individual who fails to pay
court-imposed fines and costs will have his driver's license
suspended, regardless of income, race, gender, nationality, or other

Absent dissimilar treatment, the Equal Protection Clause of the
Constitution is not at issue, the state lawyers argued.

"Although Plaintiffs have set forth what could be described as a
persuasive argument that courts should give indigent criminal
defendants greater latitude with respect to the imposition or
repayment of fines and costs, what they have presented is, at its
heart, a policy argument - and this is not a policymaking forum. It is
a court of law," the office wrote to U.S. District Judge Norman Moon.

The Attorney General's Office recently filed another motion to dismiss
the suit - this one in light of a new rule by the Virginia Supreme
Court. The rule was adopted by the justices last month and takes
effect in February.

Among other things, the rule requires a judge to take into account a
defendant's financial resources and obligations, including indigence,
as well as anything owed in other courts when determining the amount
and length of time to pay court fines and costs under a deferred or
installment payment plan.

Randolph Rollins, founder and president of Drive to Work, a charitable
organization that helps people win back their licenses, said the
current state law allows judges to defer payment of fines and costs to
a later date or to set up an installment plan for an offender to avoid
suspending his or her license.

Prior to the new rule, Rollins, the secretary of public safety in the
administration of Gov. Douglas Wilder, said, "Each individual court
made its own decisions. Some of them didn't give pay plans at all.
Some of them gave pay plans that were very liberal. Others were very
restrictive about it."

The rule standardizes things and also tells courts that where
available, "the court should liberally use community service work as
an option to defray fines and costs, especially where the defendant is
unable to make substantial payments."

The Attorney General's Office argues: "The Virginia Supreme Court,
therefore, has enacted the very policy Plaintiffs seek. For this
reason, there is no further relief that could or should issue in this
case and these proceedings are moot."

Ciolfi welcomes the new rule but strongly disagrees that it fixes the
problem targeted by the suit. Rather, she said, it acknowledges that
the system is broken.

"The Supreme Court deserves our praise for its leadership in helping
people avoid the court debt trap. If the rules are implemented in both
letter and spirit, they offer tremendous potential to stem the tide of
drivers entering the license-for-payment pipeline," Ciolfi said.

But she said the rule does not "alter the fundamental flaw in the
license-for-payment system, which is the mandatory and automatic
nature of the driver's license suspension statute."

Rollins, with Drive to Work, believes the new rule "is a pretty
significant development."
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