Virginia’s New Debtor’s Prison

speeding_ticketby 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.

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20 responses to “Virginia’s New Debtor’s Prison

  1. It strikes me that one quick, but partial fix, would be to allow the person with the suspended license to drive to and from work and for applying for work, child care & medical reasons, absent evidence that the person involved is a threat to society while behind the wheel. The Commonwealth should consider adopting this change irrespective of the lawsuit.

    There should also be some way for the truly indigent to pay off their fines over time or, perhaps, cancel it through some type of public service.

    I am, however, skeptical that there is a legal or constitutional right to have taxpayers fund all of the costs of bringing a guilty party through the court system. If one is found not guilty, no fees or fines apply. But there are still many penumbras and emanations under which to discover a brand-new, made-up right.

  2. The fly is this ointment is the ability in most courts to invoke a payment plan in order to regain your right to a license. As it turns out, though, the courts vary widely as to what they are willing to do for a payment plan. This needs to be made uniform. Also, I have found that the better way to fix the problem is to have these people do weekends (or other days off) in the can. Most will come up with the money if they are facing jail time, no matter how little time. A good target would be 10 days, all doable on weekends, all as an option to paying the fines on payment plan. Once you effectively remove the penalty from driving violations, you will get more driving violations.

    • Doing community service — letting a poor person pay with his time instead of cash — or doing jail time on weekends sound like reasonable alternatives to me.

      Another possibility, feasible with new technology, is to put a lock on a car that limits driving to certain hours of the day, say, when a person is driving to work.

      Surely we can make the law less draconian without undermining the principle that people must obey the traffic laws and pay their share of court costs.

      • As it turns out, community service isn’t really service at all. It costs more to administer than the supposed benefits, except maybe where juveniles are involved. So then, who pays those costs? The idea was supposed to be to avoid costs. The VASAP program is very costly in DUI cases: people not showing up, putting in the paperwork to drag them back to court, more paper when they don’t show up to court. Sheriff’s time serving warrants. There is no reason for the court system to make money, a la the Hopewell sheriff on I 295, but neither is there reason to lose money on the system.

        Tom Warren, long time now retired judge in the 11th Cir, had it right. He didn’t believe in probation for first offenses, particularly for theft, though he would usually go along with a plea deal that involved probation. He didn’t believe in programs. He used to say, “I’m not a social worker, I’m not here to get you into a program, you can get yourself into a program if you want to, that might help you, I don’t know. This is about punishment. Jail is what we do here for punishment” Worked every time I saw it. I watched him sentence a defendant who had taken some scrap metal from a job site. The defendant had not previously had so much as a traffic ticket. The defense was that the amount of scrap metal was not over $200 and therefore it was not a felony. Without missing a beat, Tom said, “Oh, I see. He’s a thief, just not a big thief”, and sentenced him to 90 days. To my knowledge, the defendant never again saw the inside of a courtroom.

  3. don’t seem to have these problems in Russia….

  4. Almost 1 million suspended licenses sounds way too high. Also we may have some silly things like fishing without a license that are criminal offenses putting a misdemeanor on your record. Another silly NoVA example, that was fixed a few years ago, was getting on VRE rail without a paid ticket was a crime. Sometimes I feel like Virginia, in the interest of having low taxes, has some fairly high financial penalties. The thing is, we could be making it hard for our own fellow Virginians to get jobs and make a living. The GA probably needs to do a better job being kinder and gentler to Virginians rather than being a “gotcha” state. To the extent that we are going overboard, it’s just hurting our own residents and our own economy.

  5. people on the lower end financially are vulnerable to disaster that for others would be just an inconvenience.

    Happens with minor street drugs…also.

    Police use things like bad tail lights to pull people over then they go after other potential violations.. on the premise that such folks probably are chargeable with “something”..

    No surprise that these folks sometimes “run” .. making it all the worse.

    don’t believe it?

    read this: ” Justice Department to Release Blistering Report of Racial Bias by Baltimore Police

    The Justice Department has found that the Baltimore Police Department for years has hounded black residents who make up most of the city’s population, systematically stopping, searching and arresting them, often with little provocation or rationale.

    In a blistering report, coming more than a year after Baltimore erupted into riots over the police-involved death of a 25-year-old black man, Freddie Gray, the Justice Department is sharply critical of policies that encouraged police officers to charge black residents with minor crimes. ”

    when these things happen to people on the financial margins – their lives are totally turned upside down and many get drawn into the criminal justice “system” – never to escape after that.

  6. “Once you effectively remove the penalty from driving violations, you will get more driving violations.”

    That goes to the heart of this discussion. These are not suspensions of the right to drive that result from driving in a manner for which the GA has specified that the penalty of suspension of the right to drive is appropriate. These are caused by the failure to pay court costs and fines, and not even necessarily for driving violations at all. o earn the money to pay those fines, is worse than counterproductive! CJD is right, 10 days in jail served on weekends may be just the way to drive the point home without making payment practically impossible.

    • The problem is – the penalties are hugely regressive on lower income people who have to choose between paying the rent or electric or even fuel for their car which gets them to/from work, rather than the fine.

      and when you put them in jail -if they were working – you turn them into people who themselves and their families will then need entitlements.

      Jail on weekends? Spoken like true folks whose work does not include weekends!!! Earth to Clueless: Folks on the lower margins often WORK WEEKENDs guys!!! They might even work 60 hours a week and have kids. You’re gonna pay for child care also?

      The way our criminal justice system works right now – if you are poor – a broken taillight will bankrupt you and put your family on welfare. that’s dumb.

      • In an unusual situation Larry hovers near reality on this. Why are taxes progressive but traffic tickets are not? Relative financial pain varies by income. The ticket should be 5% of your monthly income rather than some set amount. Mr. Stinnie would owe $15. I’d owe a bit more. Neither of us would go to jail over the matter however.

        As an aside, after 41 years of driving, I have never had a ticket for a moving violation. If good driving points were unlimited I’d be able to walk away from an attempted homicide rap with the points I would have accumulated. Someone should tell Mr. Stinnie to slow down. With his high GPA I am sure Mr. Stinnie can calculate how little time he actually saves by driving at 75 mph vs 55 mph.

        As for Mr. Stinnie’s future … if he really graduated from high school with a 3.9 GPA I am astonished that he is not in college. Over the years I worked with a lot of high school aged young men and women from Anacostia High School in DC. The students with good grades and true need qualified for a wide variety of scholarships and student aid. Mr. Stinnie ought to sit down and fill out the forms for college before he gets too old to consider that option.

      • Spoken like a true liberal, Larry. There should be no consequences for anything. The poor dears should be allowed to do whatever they want. And of course, you fail to observe the obvious: that “weekends” are different for everyone. Some get off Tues and Weds, some get Monday and Friday. There are all manner of days/time off that can be spent in jail.

        You claim that the poor dears will be bankrupt. You offer no solution to how it should be done.

        • wrong Crazy. There should be consequences but it can’t be the ham-fisted ignorant kind that flies off the top of a Conservatives head right off the bat!!!

          I offer solutions .. unlike you boys… that’s your problem – across the board – for a LOT of issues!

          first – like Don – explicitly DON’T make the punishment one in which it precipitates fiscal disaster on the miscreant lawbreaker than then rolls downhill to become an additional – and often, continuing burden on taxpayers.

          When did we decide that stupid pills are mandatory?

          Many, if not, most folks who are low income – never really were taught how to make “good” choices and so, many of them make “bad” choices – about a lot of things in life… but beating the H-E-L-L out of them as an additional punishment is just plain a WORSE CHOICE – especially coming from those who fancy themselves as SMARTer FOLKS!

          why do we insist on being so stupid about things like this?

          Punishment? fit the “crime” for the financial means they do have … and offer options for payment – including in-kind labor – done in a timeframe that they can do without costing them their jobs… in other words – some good old fashion “conservative” common sense…

          perhaps such punishment actually leads to positive changes.. in their lives… eh?

    • Suspensions may not be DIRECTLY due to driving, however, they are generally only one step removed. In the example cited in the lawsuit, the guy had four driving violations that led to fines. If we don’t expect a violator to pay the fines, what’s left? The only exception would be such things as losing the license because you didn’t pay child support. That WOULD be as you say, and unjustified in my mind.

  7. Jim implies Virginia has a potential problem, which I accept as a hypothesis, but it is not proven by the blog itself. Obviously there are 49 other states to benchmark against. If it turns out, upon closer comparison, Virginia has the best policies, so be it. My guess however is that Jim’s hypothesis may be closer to correct.

    We have Gov McAuliffe trying to bring jobs to Virginia, and that is a solid effort on his part. But if no one qualifies to work due to loss of driving privileges and misdemeanors on their records, where are we then?

    • re: ” But if no one qualifies to work due to loss of driving privileges and misdemeanors on their records, where are we then?”

      first – if someone is a violent threat to society or even someone who is a direct threat to others – like a thief or embezzler – etc – let them suffer the legal sanctions…. designed as a remedy.

      but for others who have just done things that are “violations” – DON’T do things that will ruin their lives – and, in turn, turn them into wards of the govt and taxpayers!

      when we talk about “justice” – we have to keep the big picture in mind. a guy that works as a laborer -but makes enough money to support their family -even if barely – even if there is SOME govt assistance – to damage, degrade or destroy his ability to earn money – as a “punishment” -you gotta wonder what “we” as a society are intending to accomplish…

      why are we going around stopping people with broken taillights on a huge differentially demographic basis – depending on who it is, what kind of car they’re driving and in what section of town – to start with?

    • Obviously we all want true crime to be reduced and strictly handled.

      The remaining “non-criminal” issues fall under 2 categories: (1) state policy and laws developed by the GA (for example Va. fishing laws only give the options of criminal charges, because that’s what the GA law makers wrote into their laws, unless it has been recently changed due to complaints), and (2) police policy, which today, I am not going into Item (2) as that is a national debate.

  8. police policy if it’s not aimed at demographics is a different issue than if the statistics show discrimination in how policy is implemented.

    but let me steer a little here and ask what we should do about someone who is playing with their phone – and causes an accident.

    it’s become rampant. In the last few years – the accident and death rate has gone UP – and more and more evidence is accumulating that shows that people cannot put their phones down – and willing choose to engage in exceptionally risky behaviors – that are harming other people.

    What do you do about this? To me – that is far, far worse than ticketing someone over a broken tailight or some relatively minor moving violation.

  9. Law enforcement should not be used to gratuitously ruin people’s future. Here in the area of traffic violations that seems far too often to be the case. Several of the fixes suggested above to this major problem strike me as valuable suggestions that should be tested.

  10. You can also have your license taken away without committing a traffic violation: our legislators last debacle of a session approved ez-pass fees being tied to dmv. Essentially, you can owe the tolling company money, and the state with take away your right to drive.
    There’s a few things at play here, but the bottom line is that barriers to access will restrict flow, which will limit the economy.
    There’s also a certain percent of the population that will be significantly more affected by this than others, essentially creating yet another division between us. And for me personally destroying the beauty of what once was: the open road.
    Third layer: everything mentioned so far assumes/depends on the system to run correctly/efficiently/honestly. That is not the case with most ez-pass projects in Virginia, and the results make the situation that more dire.
    The tolling company running the downtown/midtown/mlk project in norfolk/portsmouth is fundamentally flawed at best, borderline criminal to say the least. The meat: the late fees are outrageous, customer service is non-responsive/non-existent, their cameras have flaws, and topped off with the longest peak time span of all metro areas in Virginia.
    A cynical person would think that its almost as if it were set up that way. An optimistic person is just glad that this is being talked about and more citizens are becoming aware.

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