Northam Plans to Curtail License Suspensions

A huge victory for the drive-to-work movement: Governor Ralph Northam has announced plans to halt the practice of suspending driver’s licenses as a way to collect unpaid court fines and fees, reports the Washington Post.

In Virginia more than 276,000 licenses were suspended in 2017 alone. The practice creates a Catch-22 for the people, mostly poor and working class, who are affected. Judges revoke peoples’ licenses as incentive to pay court penalties. But without a license, many can’t work and earn the money to pay the penalties. Indeed, the problem compounds because people driving on suspended licenses often get stopped for unrelated traffic offenses and rack up even bigger fines. The system, in a word, is insane, and a bipartisan majority has come to see it for the policy folly that it is.

Sen. William M. Stanley Jr., R-Franklin, has submitted a bill that would end license suspensions for drivers who fail to pay fines and costs. Stanley praised Northam’s plan. “I’m glad that he’s thinking like me.”

The WaPo story did not detail how Northam would approach the problem.

There is one obvious concern. Courts need some kind of sanction for people who refuse to pay their court fines and fees. If jailing them makes no sense — they can’t pay back their penalties if they’re stewing in confinement — and if suspending their drivers’ licenses is self-defeating, what other alternatives are there? One possible partial solution is to make it easier for people living hand-to-mouth to work out long-term repayment plans. But there will always be scofflaws and free-riders, so there needs to be some kind of punishment for them.

Bacon’s bottom line: This is one of those rare issues where Republicans and Democrats, liberals, conservatives, and libertarians can all agree: As a society, we want to make it easier, not harder, for people to work for a living and meet their obligations. Ending the practice of suspending licenses is a big step in the right direction.

But legislation should not stop there. Unless they provide courts with some means of collecting fines and fees, lawmakers will empower the scofflaws and encourage contempt for the law.

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14 responses to “Northam Plans to Curtail License Suspensions

  1. Weekends in jail, or even one day a weekend would be an incentive. You could even drive yourself to jail with your unsuspended license. That would tend to get someone’s attention.

  2. During FY 18 the state’s courts imposed $470 million in fines and fee assessments and less than $300 million was paid on time. Another $171 million were then doled out to the local commonwealth’s attorneys to collect as delinquent. No question, the loss of the driving license is a huge collection tool, and to get it back you don’t need to pay up – you just need to get on a payment plan.

    Nice that the Governor is so confident, but it will take a bill at the GA and those bills have died previously. And any budget that fails to recognize a likely revenue loss – state and local – will be out of balance. It’s been a few sessions since I had clients on this issue but I have (the hated collection lawyers) and will watch this with interest.

    Other solutions nobody seems interested in: lower fines and fees in the first place, a centralized collection method so all the debts can be paid off at once (these unfortunates usually have problems in multiple courts at the same time) and the ability to settle the debts for a lesser amount the way tax debts can be settled. The localities do not play well together on this. But without a stick of some kind, some people will just not pay.
    For the truly wonky – a report I got to know well during my years with that group of clients.

  3. yep. Conservatives/GOP would never support this – have had the chance to do so for a long time and did not – but now will support it when it’s clear it’s going to happen anyhow. So now, after years of letting Dom run amok and nailing ordinary work-a-day citizens – and they know they’re going to lose – they change and claim they were in favor all along….

    And the “we can’t do anything” excuse has been that there has to be an alternative … and of course they could not come up with one… themselves

    yes.. like Crazy is suggesting… weekend incarceration, community-service, little pick-up, etc.. those were always options… but that didn’t stop the excuses.

    Oh.. and you could do this for parking tickets, toll evasion and METRO turnstile jumping also… without any of it being felonies…

    The real question is why do some folks basically insist on the harsher sanctions that actually do lasting harm to people’s ability to actually work and make a living, pay taxes, etc?

    why do we insist on stupid stuff like this and refuse to do more rational fixes?

  4. Having worked closely with the people who spend all their time trying to collect this money, what I hear is some are trapped by the circumstances but plenty are just deadbeats who are neither going to obey the law nor ever pay the fines. I’m all for ending the license suspension and then returning the real debtor’s prison…:)

    Actually, Northam’s secret plan is to greatly expand legalized gambling, and then the debts can be collected against winnings – as is now done with the lottery. He also wants to expand the EITC to include actual cash payments to people, which can then be withheld to pay these debts! As is now done with other tax refunds! Actually all this might work better!

    • yes, there are deadbeats… in this world – but the answer to that is not to focus only on the poor and then set up policies that trap even the non-deadbeats.

      that’s dumb!

      the excuse is that you need to get to the deadbeats but the reality is you’re only going after the poor deadbeats plus the rest of the poor.

      what we want (and need) is a FAIR criminal justice system that does not use sanctions that so damage the poor that whatever they were managing to do to make a living – that we take that away also – and then they end up in prison or on welfare. that’s dumb!

      We DO WANT sanctions on people who break the law – but jesus H. Keeetrist – the punishment needs to fit the crime – so people who are deadbeats and scofflaws – they need to have sanctions but they’re not felons or violent threats to society – they need to be able to make a living.

      All this stupid stuff rolls back on poor families who have kids… and the economic damage extends past the offender to harm the family – and the kids.

      we have a system that insures generational poverty and the impacts and costs that accrue to other taxpayers…

      we do this… then we cry about entitlements and MedicAid… disruptive students.. and gawd knows what else.

  5. Next step they should pardon all the criminal charges for fishing without a license and parking in the fishing lots.

  6. I like the idea of allowing people to drive to work or to other necessary events, such as a doctors appointment. But there needs to be some penalty for people who don’t pay the fees.

  7. I have seen court rulings that revoke a person’s license except when he is driving to work. (I don’t think the rulings gave an exception for traveling to the doctor.)

  8. Why would we want to suspend a license? Aren’t we moving towards only prosecuting violent crimes? Heck we’re decriminalizing turnstile jumping so why not do away with those pesky traffic penalties too? Besides can’t adults benefit from restorative justice? If we plant the seeds of Justice we will grow a fruitful Utopia! Those laws are just western social constructs that should be smashed anyways.

  9. The newspaper article gives the impression that the Governor can unilaterally stop the suspension of licenses upon the failure to pay fines, fees, and costs. Steve is correct–legislation will be needed. Sec. 46.2-395 of the Code of Virginia says that, if a person fails to pay fines, etc. “the court shall forthwith suspend the person’s privilege to drive a motor vehicle”. The courts have no discretion.
    It seems to me that repealing this section altogether uses too big a hammer and eliminates a tool that courts could have to deal with scofflaws. The better approach would be to make that power in 46.2-395 discretionary, i.e. courts may suspend licenses and give judges the authority to suspend licenses completely or to provide only limited driving privileges, i.e. to work, medical appointments, etc.
    The fiscal impact of this practice is the result of a $145 reinstatement fee that must be paid to DMV before one can get his license reinstated. Of this amount, $100 goes to the Trauma Center Fund and $45 goes to DMV. The Governor included over $8 million in general fund appropriation in the budget to offset the loss to the Trauma Fund. DMV, however, would have to eat the loss of revenue.

  10. Good suggestion. So long as judges are given only the choices of suspend and limited suspension, it should. That would produce more consistent decisions than allowing judges not to suspend at all. And there should be a reasonable limit on how many times a violator can get relief. I’d say no more than twice.

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