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In Virginia, a class action case is heating up as the Department of Justice has decided to enter the fight. The gist of the case is that in Virginia, if a driver fails to pay court costs or fines, they may have their driver's license suspended without consideration of whether the failure to pay was intentional or a result of poverty. To date, nearly 1 million Virginia drivers have had their licenses suspended as a result of unpaid court costs and fines. The lawsuit alleges that the law unfairly punishes the poor.
Although suspending someone's driving privileges seems to be a rather minor punishment in the grand scheme of things, it can actually have disastrous effects. Ironically, the law makes it more difficult to get to work to pay the fines that resulted in the license suspension in the first place. As the DOJ explains, this sort of punishment can create an inescapable cycle of poverty.
The DOJ is asking the court to allow the class action suit to proceed. While not taking a position on whether the specific facts of the case are accurate, the DOJ believes the Virginia law needs to be scrutinized. The department's brief, filed with the court, asserts that suspending driver's licenses for non-payment without inquiring into the reason for the non-payment results in penalizing indigent individuals solely because of their poverty. As such, the DOJ asserts that improperly suspending driver's licenses without the inquiry violates a person's constitutional right to due process.
Recently, the DOJ issued a news release that explained that the department's involvement is part of their larger efforts to fight the unlawful practices that punish poverty in the justice system. In the news release, the DOJ provided a link to the guidance letter they provided to the court systems regarding this very issue four months before this lawsuit was ever filed.
The guidance letter basically advises a court to not abuse their power when attempting to collect court fines and fees. Additionally, the DOJ doesn't hold back its criticism and clearly states that suspending a person's driver's license to coerce payment of court fees and fines is harmful both to the individual and society.
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