By Jimmy O’Keefe
Capital News Service
RICHMOND, Va. -- When Brianna Morgan’s driver’s license was suspended due to court debt in 2014, her life became more challenging. Morgan was pregnant at the time and had two children, which made it difficult to get around without a car.
“It completely changed my day to day life at the time,” said Morgan, who lives in Petersburg. “I had a high-risk pregnancy, so I had to go to the OB-GYN every week for ultrasounds. And trying to get that done without my license was a nightmare.”
Morgan said she had to rely on other people for rides, which wasn’t always dependable, or risk getting behind the wheel of her car without a license in order to keep her appointments.
Senate Bill 1, which repeals from state law the requirement that an individual’s driver’s license be suspended if they don’t pay court dues, unanimously passed the Senate last week. Sponsored by Sen. William Stanley, R-Franklin, the bill also repeals a provision of state law requiring that defendants present a summary provided by the Department of Motor Vehicles that states which courts the defendant owes fines and costs to. The bill incorporated three other Senate bills.
“License suspensions in Virginia for court debt is really Virginia’s form of debtor’s prison,” said Pat Levy-Lavelle, an attorney with Legal Aid Justice Center, a nonprofit based in Virginia that litigates on behalf of low-income individuals. A 2017 report released by the Legal Aid Justice Center found that nearly 1 million Virginians’ licenses had been suspended due to court debt.
Levy-Lavelle said that people get their licenses suspended because they are too poor to pay. He noted that license suspensions due to court debt makes it harder for people to keep their jobs, go to school or take care of their kids.
“It really impairs people in their daily lives,” Levy-Lavelle said. “It’s unfair, unconstitutional and wrong.”
Last year, the General Assembly voted to approve a budget amendment proposed by Gov. Ralph Northam that reinstated driver’s licenses to over 600,000 Virginians who had their licenses suspended. Because this policy went into effect via a budget amendment, the policy is only in place until the budget expires in July 2020.
“The legislation this year takes essentially what was a temporary fix last year and makes it a permanent legislative repeal,” Levy-Lavelle said.
Stanley introduced similar legislation in the past two General Assembly sessions that would have ended the suspension of driver’s licenses due to court debt, but SB 1 is the first that has not died in a Republican-led committee. Levy-Lavelle attributed the bill’s success to the new makeup of the General Assembly.
“Last year and in previous years, the leadership of the House Courts Committee was different and they were able to stop what was frankly a common sense piece of reform,” Levy-Lavelle said.
Morgan said she is grateful that Virginia is taking steps to reinstate driver’s licenses that were suspended due to court debt.
“I think this is by far one of the most appropriate actions that the commonwealth could take to ensure a positive quality of life for its residents,” Morgan said.
She added that regardless of why a person would need to pay any court fees in the first place, she believes that being able to get around is a right, not a privilege.
“It gives us the opportunity to get back to where we were and to grow and flourish,” Morgan said.