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Bill to end license suspensions for court debt dies

Bill to end license suspensions for court debt dies

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RICHMOND — Four Republicans voted to halt a bill with bipartisan support that would repeal current state law that suspends the Virginia driver’s license of anyone who doesn’t promptly pay court fines or costs unrelated to driving offenses.

Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin, estimates that more than 600,000 people in Virginia currently have suspended driver’s licenses. Lawmakers on the House Courts of Justice subcommittee expressed concern about the potential impact on money collected from license reinstatement fees.

Four Republicans on the House Courts of Justice subcommittee voted to kill the bill, SB 1013: Majority Leader Todd Gilbert, Shenandoah; Del. Rob Bell, Albemarle; Del. Chris Collins, Frederick; and Del. Margaret Ransone, Westmoreland. Three Democrats — Charniele Herring, Alexandria; Mike Mullin, Newport News; and Vivian Watts, Fairfax — voted against stopping the bill.

Currently, $100 of the $145 reinstatement fee goes to the funding for trauma centers and the rest goes to the Department of Motor Vehicles.

On Monday, Christie Marra, an attorney with the Virginia Poverty Law Center, told the delegates on the panel that once someone loses their license, other problems can quickly take hold. In many areas of the commonwealth lacking good public transportation, those who lose their license risk losing their jobs because they can’t get to work, she said.

“We’re having people drive without licenses and driving without insurance, and that poses a risk to our citizens,” said Stanley, a criminal-defense lawyer.

Stanley said those people then rack up more fines and more debt, and they become buried in court fines that are difficult to pay off.

As Republicans across the country gradually start embracing criminal justice reform, Stanley was hoping this bill even could get support from the more “law-and-order” lawmakers.

The Senate passed the bill with bipartisan support on a 36-4 vote. Gov. Ralph Northam vocalized support for ending the practice during his State of the Commonwealth address last month.

Bell said Tuesday that he voted against the bill because he believes some punishment is required for those who break the law and that some traffic offenses are particularly dangerous, such as passing a school bus.

“I respectfully disagree and think there are better approaches,” he said. “We still think there should be some punishment for breaking the law, particularly when it can cause harm to others.”

In 2017, the General Assembly passed legislation that required judges to take a person’s financial situation into account when setting up payment plans, Bell said. By allowing the person to have a payment plan, and to substitute community service in some cases, Bell said he believes the proper balance has been struck.

Stanley expressed frustration after the House subcommittee meeting over Gilbert and Bell’s grip on the fate of Virginia’s criminal justice legislation.

“They just want to continue to punish people, they just want to continue to punish the poor, they just want to continue to put their will forth as the will of the commonwealth, two people determining the fate of 600,000 Virginians,” Stanley said Monday. “This is rule by fiat.”

This is the second time Stanley has introduced this bill. It passed the Senate last year, and then went on to die in a House panel.

Though SB 1013 died, a federal lawsuit also is seeking to repeal the law, alleging it’s a violation of protections in the U.S. Constitution.

In December, a federal judge in Charlottesville granted an injunction against Virginia DMV Commissioner Richard Holcomb, preventing the DMV from enforcing the law and requiring the agency to reinstate the licenses of three plaintiffs and refrain from suspending those of two others.

The ruling currently affects only the five plaintiffs, and the lawsuit is ongoing.

The 23-page decision from Judge Norman K. Moon found that the five plaintiffs have a strong chance of winning their argument that the DMV policy violates the Constitution’s due process rights.

“While the court recognizes the commonwealth’s interest in ensuring the collection of court fines and costs, these interests are not furthered by a license suspension scheme that neither considers an individual’s ability to pay nor provides him with an opportunity to be heard on the matter,” Moon wrote.

Following the injunction, it was announced that Charlottesville commonwealth’s attorneys no longer would prosecute individuals for the sole reason of driving on a license suspended because of unpaid court costs.

However, they will continue to prosecute people driving after their licenses have been suspended for reasons other than unpaid court costs and fines, such as restitution owed to victims or DUI-related suspensions.

Angela Ciolfi, executive director of the Legal Aid Justice Center in Charlottesville, which joined with the McGuireWoods law firm in contesting the law’s constitutionality, said they were unhappy with the legislative panel’s vote.

“We are disappointed that the General Assembly passed up an opportunity to bring relief to hundreds of thousands of Virginians and their families by repealing its unconstitutional policy, and we will continue to push forward in the courts to end the resulting cycle of debt, joblessness and incarceration once and for all,” Ciolfi said Tuesday.

The House panel on Monday also killed SB 1037, sponsored by Sen. Mark Peake, R-Lynchburg, which would have allowed someone charged with underage alcohol possession or using a false ID to obtain alcohol to seek expungement of the charge once turning 21.

The Senate unanimously passed Peake’s bill. Bell, Collins, Gilbert, Herring and Ransone all voted to halt the bill in the House subcommittee.

Peake brought the same bill last year, which also died in a House committee. He said he’d be back with his bill next year.

“I’ll keep working on you,” he told the delegates.

Tyler Hammel is a reporter for The Daily Progress. Contact him at (434) 978-7268, thammel@dailyprogress.com or @TylerHammelVA on Twitter.

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