Using a combination of common sense and common decency, the Commonwealth of Virginia has done a good thing.
Because of rules that went into effect July 1, about 600,000 Virginians will now be able to drive legally again. They won’t be punished for not having enough money to pay court costs related to traffic violations.
For a decade, Drive-to-Work and other groups have been trying to get the state to change its practice of suspending drivers’ licenses for those who can’t pay court fines and costs. This year, the state Senate passed a bill to effect that change by a vote of 36–4. However, a similar bill failed in the House when the Courts of Justice Subcommittee killed it.
As is often the case here and elsewhere in this fractured political world, the vote was along party lines. All the Democrats on the committee voted to send it on for a vote before the full House. All the Republicans, including Del. Margaret Ransone, representing the Northern Neck and part of Caroline County, voted to quash it.
Gov. Ralph Northam came to the rescue. The governor added language to the budget to halt the practice, and the state lawmakers approved it on floor votes in the reconvened session. (Licenses can be still be suspended for such things as restitution owed to victims and DUI-related issues.)
The save is only good for one year, though. It is up to the politicians next year to legislate it into the permanent code. In the meantime, a class-action lawsuit to stop the practice has been postponed.
Virginia is hardly the only state that suspends licenses due to unpaid court costs. A report last year stated that as many as 10 million people throughout the United States are without valid drivers’ licenses because of similar laws.
And if the legislature doesn’t provide a permanent fix, the courts definitely could. Last year, a federal judge ruled that Tennessee couldn’t revoke licenses for failure to pay court costs. A class-action lawsuit has been filed in North Carolina over the same issue.
There is no logic in taking away people’s drivers’ licenses because they can’t pay up. How are they supposed to ever pay the court if they can’t legally drive to work?
Much of Virginia is rural. For many, not having being able to drive means either being unemployed or breaking the law.
Those in defense of suspending licenses say they worry about money that won’t be collected without the threat of a lost license. The court debt is not forgiven, however. It’s just that failure to pay it immediately doesn’t mean loss of a driver’s license.
Is it sensible to take away a person’s means of livelihood because that person can’t pay court costs, thus ensuring that the debt will never be paid?
Is it morally right to send someone who is already too poor to pay into a further downward spiral by depriving that person of the ability to keep a job?
The answers are “no” and “no.”
Good job, Governor. Ball’s in your court, General Assembly.