Following the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and the subsequent Justice Department investigation, it was revealed that Missouri police departments had attempted to raise revenue by imposing petty fines and court costs on the state’s poorest citizens.
Schemes such as these have been surfacing all around the country, the most recent one in Virginia, where the Legal Aid Justice Center filed a suit on July 6 against the Virginia DMV.
The complaint alleges that the Commonwealth of Virginia “relies upon driver’s license suspension to coerce payment of money owed to courts,” specifically targeting “indigent Virginia residents.”
The lawsuit highlights statewide cyclical injustice, claiming that over 900,000 people have had their drivers licenses revoked because they were unable to pay court fees to have them restored – meaning poorer residents can be pushed even deeper into poverty by being pulled over for a traffic violation.
The punishment for driving with a suspended license in Virginia, which is what some poor people have attempted to do when they cannot pay court fines, is up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $2,500. Even though punishments that harsh are rarely imposed, active jail sentences upon conviction, particularly for a second offense, are the rule rather than the exception.
While the state is raising revenue through this scheme, it is only making its poorest people more destitute, preventing them from getting adequate transportation to their jobs and paying the necessary court fees.
Not only is the system inherently unfair, but it also may be unconstitutional. According to the lawsuit, Virginia’s revocation of driver’s licenses is a violation of the Constitution’s Due Process and Equal Protection clauses.
Attorney Matt Crowley commented, “Though some may argue that having a driver’s license is not a right, but a privilege, for many people, driving a car is their only available option to get to work, school, and other necessary places. In modern America it is difficult to have liberty or pursue happiness without mobility. It’s an activity so fundamentally important that if the Bill of Rights were being written today, it may well be that the right to drive, subject to reasonable restrictions, would be included.”
In issuing the lawsuit, the Legal Aid Justice Center hopes to change the current policy to take into account a person’s income before license suspension occurs. If this does not happen, Legal Aid Justice Center’s legal director Angela Ciolfi remarks, poor people could stay “in a perpetual state of punishment” in the Commonwealth of Virginia.