By Karin Riley Porter, a criminal defense attorney in Virginia, covering cases such as DUI, reckless driving, assault, and drug crimes.
When it comes to the ‘War on Poverty,’ the only war might actually be the one that is waged not for poor, but rather against them. A high number of Virginians, some 940,000, have had their driver’s licenses suspended due to failure to pay court-ordered fines and fees which stem from convictions, often misdemeanor.
The issue is that the people who this affects are almost entirely the poor. The reason that many of these people who have had their licenses suspended (roughly 1 in 6 of Virginia’s registered drivers) have not paid their fees, is that they cannot afford to do so.
In many cases, the reasons that these fees are even on there are ridiculous at best. The problem is that localities and states hungry for more revenue are seeking more fees and fines to add-on. This extra weight, unfortunately, usually ends up on the shoulders of indigent people who lack the means to pay the fees even if they wanted to.
Virginia is in the very small minority of states that has decided to take this a step further and deny driving privileges to those who are unable or unwilling to pay their fines and fees. Now, those struggling financially in their day-to-day lives are going to have to find new transportation to work while still trying to pay the fines.
Virginia is setting up a system that allows the cycle of poverty to continue, rather than helping these individuals break out of the cycle and live out their American dreams.
The Obama administration has previously warned courts and judges that they might run into constitutional issues for imposing fines and fees while disregarding the defendant’s ability to pay. It seems that time is finally starting to come.
The Legal Aid Justice Center, a nonprofit group which represents low-income Virginians in court, filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court on July 6 against the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles for this practice. The group alleges that their racketeering is an “unconstitutional scheme” which unjustly targets the poor.
The suit reads: “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 office of Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, who is seeking reelection as Attorney General next year, has not responded to the lawsuit.
In a time when tensions between police and minority communities is at its highest, it is even more disheartening to see this practice. It turns our law enforcement officers, who risk their lives to keep us out of harm’s, into collection agents for the courts.
This just further paints a negative picture of the women and men of our law enforcement. If Virginia wishes to truly see progress and growth it must first stop this crusade against the poor.