A federal lawsuit against the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles alleges the state has suspended almost 1 million licenses from drivers who cannot afford to pay their court fees -- trapping them in a cycle of debt and unemployment.
The state's DMV has suspended more than 940,000 licenses from those who cannot afford to pay court fees and fines, more than a third of which are unrelated to vehicle infractions, the class action suit claims.
"Hundreds of thousands of people have lost their licenses simply because they are too poor to pay, effectively depriving them of reliable, lawful transportation necessary to get to and from work, take children to school, keep medical appointments, care for ill or disabled family members, or, paradoxically, to meet their financial obligations to the courts," the suit states.
The Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC), which represents low-income Virginians, filed the suit July 6 in the U.S. District Court in western Virginia.
The lawsuit follows an LAJC analysis released in May that claims Virginia courts have failed to heed recommendations from the Judicial Council of Virginia that were "aimed at helping low-income residents pay off their court fines and costs."
The council delivered the recommendations last summer and the majority of state courts have since "disregarded or fallen significantly short" of helping the poor reduce their court debts, the LAJC report found.
The four plaintiffs named in the lawsuit have battled debt, homelessness, life-threatening illness, unemployment and other daily struggles after they failed to pay court fees and had their licenses suspended for years. In all four plaintiffs' cases, the suit claims the state DMV failed to assess each person's financial situation before handing down hefty fines and strict timelines for payment.
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"Suspended licenses can trap the poor in an impossible situation: inability to reinstate their licenses without gainful employment, yet inability to work without a license," the suit states.
Those with suspended licenses are then trapped in a cycle of liabilities -- either risk further fines for driving with a suspended license, or risk unemployment due to a lack of reliable transportation.
The suit also notes that court assessments and collections of fines have significantly increased in recent years. Virginia courts saw a 119 percent increase in unpaid fine and cost assessments in 17 fiscal years, from $218.5 million in 1998 to $618.7 million in 2014.
Over the same time, court collections increased by 34 percent, from $192.2 million to $258.6 million, according to the Commonwealth's Attornerys 2014 Fines and Fees Report.
A spokesman for Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring declined to comment because the state has yet to file a response.