by James A. Bacon
Damian Stinnie, a 24-year-old African American living in Charlottesville, grew up in the foster care system in Virginia but managed to graduate from high school with a 3.9 GPA. Living with his twin since aging out of foster care, he has worked nearly full-time as a sales clerk at Walmart and, after losing that job, at Abercrombie & Fitch, earning minimum wage, or about $300 per week.
In 2013, Stinnie was convicted of four traffic citations, resulting in fines and charges of $1,002. When he was unable to pay, his driver’s license was suspended, and another $501 in costs imposed. Not knowing that his license was suspended, he continued driving. Stopped again, he was cited for driving without a license. Later that year, he was hospitalized for lymphoma. Unable to attend the court hearing, he was found guilty in absentia of driving without a license and ordered to pay another $117 in court costs and a $150 fine. And the story of woe, cited in a class-action lawsuit filed by the Legal Aid Justice Center, just gets worse. Read it and weep.
An estimated 940,000 Virginians, disproportionately minorities, have a suspended license for nonpayment of court costs and fines. Not every case may be as severe as Stinnie’s, but thousands are trapped in a downward spiral. Denied a license, they find it difficult to find and maintain a job. If they drive illegally, they rack up even more court costs and fines.
“Driver’s license suspension is Virginia’s form of a debtors’ prison,” Angela Ciolfi, a senior attorney at the Legal Aid Justice Center, is quoted as saying in the Reason Foundation’s Hit & Run blog. “Many areas of the state provide no reliable public transportation, effectively leaving people confined to their homes or forcing them to risk jail time by driving on suspended licenses.”
Last month the Legal Aid Justice Center filed a lawsuit challenging Virginia’s policy of suspending drivers licenses indefinitely for unpaid court debts. States the lawsuit:
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. …
In order to fund its basic operations, the Commonwealth has steadily increased the amounts that may be taxes as costs against convicted criminal and traffic defendants and tacked on various additional fees.
Assessments against criminal and traffic court defendants have risen from $281.5 million in fiscal year 1998 to $618.8 million in 2014.
Bacon’s bottom line: Clearly, the system has broken down. Thousands of Virginians are caught in a vicious cycle of indebtedness to the courts. The system needs to be reformed.
But how do we reform it? That gets tricky. The unfortunate Mr. Stimmie did have a bad habit of piling up traffic tickets. Do we abandon the practice of fining people who violate traffic laws? Do we scale the size of the fines according to peoples’ incomes, as they I believe they do in some Scandinavian countries? Do we stop requiring people to pay court costs? If we do so, who does pay — the general public? Do lawbreakers get off scot free and law-abiding citizens pick up the tab?
Whatever the answer — and there are no easy ones — we need to do something. Particularly heinous, insofar as it does occur, is the practice of jacking up fines and penalties as a substitute for taxes. If there is a social justice cause that could unite liberals, libertarians and perhaps even conservatives, this would be it.
Update: Correction made to Damian Stimmie’s pay at Abercrombie & Fitch.