Suspended Licenses in Virginia a Social Scourge

Suspended licenses have created a major social problem in Virginia.
Virginia suspended licenses at the rate of 160,000 per year in the first quarter of fiscal 2017. Image credit:

In the fiscal year ending June 2015, the Old Dominion suspended licenses of nearly 39,000 Virginians for drug convictions unrelated to driving. The practice is a relic dating back to 1991 and the war on drugs, and all but 12 states have abandoned it.

Suspending licenses for drug possession is just one facet of a widespread abuse, which we have highlighted on this blog, of depriving Virginians of their driving privileges. In just the first quarter of the current fiscal year, 10,900 Virginians lost their licenses for drug-related offenses, 20,700 for failure to pay court fines, and 8,000 for failure to pay child support, reports Frank Green in the Richmond Times-Dispatch today.

The irony of the suspended-licenses policy is that depriving Virginians of their right to drive narrows their options for getting to work and makes it more difficult to maintain the employment they need to pay the fines and child support. Estimates show that nearly three-quarters continue to drive illegally. Many get caught, and their court-related troubles compound. The practice has created a treadmill of indebtedness that keep hundreds of thousands of Virginians trapped in poverty.

A new rule quietly adopted by the Virginia Supreme Court, effective February, will require all courts to offer more flexible terms for paying off court fines.  One option is to pay on a deferred or installment plan. Another is to assign people to community service.

Meanwhile, Sen. Adam P. Ebbin, D-Alexandria, has introduced a bill to the General Assembly that would halt the automatic stripping of drug offenders’ driver’s licenses — contingent upon written assurance from the U.S. Department of Transportation that Virginia would not lose any federal transportation funds. (In 1991, Green explains, Congress had threatened states with the loss of federal highway funds if they did not automatically suspend the licenses of drug offenders.)

Bacon’s bottom line: There is no rational nexus between committing a drug-related crime and having a driver’s license suspended or revoked. Ebbin is right, Virginia should reverse the policy. The appropriate way to punish drug dealers — I’m side-stepping here the debate over whether we should decriminalize marijuana — is through sentencing and parole, not depriving offenders of the means to earn a livelihood.

While Ebbin’s legislation is reasonable, we need to go further. Any system that deprives Virginians of drivers’ licenses for non traffic-related offenses at the rate of 160,000 a year creates an enormous social problem. Virginia’s courts have become an engine of oppression and immiseration, perpetuating poverty. We need to find a better way.

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8 responses to “Suspended Licenses in Virginia a Social Scourge”

  1. Kudos for this, Jim! A policy that keeps people from a productive path doesn’t make sense.

  2. LarrytheG Avatar

    ditto – good article and yes… Virginia is essentially saying – ” we not only want to deprive you of a way to make a living legally – and truth be known – we’d be just fine if you ended up in prison and then from that point on – either stay in prison or sell illegal drugs or suck entitlements.

    Yes – this is yet another example of the “Virginia Way”.

    oh.. and yes.. we’d rather spend 30K per inmate than even half that much for an at-risk kid in a low-income neighborhood school. So much easier to blame bad parents and teachers..!!!

  3. Jim, you did say, “I’m side-stepping here the debate over whether we should decriminalize marijuana.” Yes, but in the long run there’s no avoiding that question; it’s the source of so much of the problem. Regardless of one’s personal preference or libertarian bent, here in NoVa the ready availability of this cheap drug in MD and DC puts Virginia’s enforcers in a tough — some would say intolerable — spot. Thanks for highlighting the federal DOT’s role in this!

  4. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    Absent drug use, including marijuana use, in connection with driving, it seems to me that the law should be changed to remove suspension of a DL as a penalty for drug convictions.

    It’s also time to reconcile federal and state law on marijuana. Either the feds should permit state power to be exercised, or the feds should override state legalization. I’d favor the former.

  5. LarrytheG Avatar

    One thing to consider is what law enforcement would look like – how it would operate if drug were not criminalized.

    How many cars would be searched and for what?

    Ditto for people stopped on the street or in their homes?

    How many jobs in law enforcement are devoted to drugs, drug dogs, and other staffing and infrastructure?

    Don’t get me wrong – I’m not advocating that we ignore the use of ANY drug in an auto accident but I’m talking about all the other police staffing and activity that is devoted to drug enforcement.

    what percent of police work is devoted to drugs?

    How many people would we have in prison because of non-violent drug activities? what percentage of prison space and guards are needed for people imprisoned for drugs?

    Finally – how does this country compare to other advanced nations on the drug issue?

  6. LarrytheG Avatar

    one more – it’s pretty obvious what our drug policy has done to our criminal justice system:

  7. By the way, the new VA drivers licenses don’t look as colorful anymore. We finally had to go to DMV to get new ones which means we’ve lived in VA quite a while…not quite 16 years yet. Time flies when you’re having fun!

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