Yanking Drivers’ License Over Unpaid Court Costs Is Inhumane

by Kerry Daugherty

Many years ago, OK, 11 to be exact, I foolishly zipped along Rt. 58 through Emporia.

Yep, the speeding capital of the Old Dominion.

I saw the flashing lights in my rearview, heard the screaming sirens and prayed that the cop was chasing one of the cars ahead of me.

He wasn’t.

It’s one thing for out-of-staters to get nabbed along that rural ribbon of alternating 45, 55 and 60 mph speed limits with a cop car lurking behind every bush, but those of us who live in Virginia should know better.

Despite begging the officer for just a warning, and explaining that I had a good excuse: I’d been listening to a football game on the radio and Ole Miss just scored a touchdown on LSU. I’d accidentally mashed the accelerator in celebration.

I got the ticket anyway.

When I thought about points on my license and sharply higher insurance rates, I decided to head back to Emporia on my court date and act as my own lawyer.

How hard could it be?

So on a frigid January morning in 2010 I spent two hours driving oh-so-slowly to the Greensville County Courthouse. I planned to tell the judge about the football game, gambling on him not being an LSU alum, and throw myself on the mercy of the court.

I also brought along a calibration. Unfortunately, it proved that my speedometer showed a higher speed than I was actually traveling. I hoped His Honor wouldn’t look at it closely.

At the end of the day, after what I considered a brilliant legal argument and hearing no “Geaux Tigers” from the bench, my speeding ticket was reduced to faulty equipment, with nothing but court costs to pay.

Every other speeder in the courtroom, with or without a lawyer, with or without an excellent excuse, saw the same result.

Still, I felt like Perry Mason.

From the courtroom I was directed to the clerk’s office where I experienced courthouse sticker shock. If memory serves, I owed about $120.

I didn’t see that coming. Fortunately, I had the money.

If I hadn’t had the funds, the clerk would have given me a short extension. The paperwork I’d have to sign would warn me that if the costs weren’t paid in that time frame my license would be suspended.

Which is how about a million Virginians have found themselves trapped in a classic Catch-22: They can’t pay their costs, so they lose their driver’s licenses, leaving them less able to pay their fines and caught in a web of debt.

State Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin, a lawyer, introduced legislation two years in a row that would do away with this heinous practice. After all, the government has multiple ways to collect overdue costs and fines without crippling the lives of its citizens.

“What this has created in effect is a debtor’s prison,” Stanley told The Roanoke Times when he first introduced the bill. “Those who cannot pay their fines most certainly lose their license. Then they cannot drive, and then they lose their jobs, then the fine grows, then the debt grows and the despair grows.”

Last year the bill died. This year SB1 passed with very few nays in a bipartisan show of sanity.

Suspension of driver’s license for nonpayment of fines or costs. Repeals the requirement that the driver’s license of a person convicted of any violation of the law who fails or refuses to provide for immediate payment of fines or costs be suspended. The bill also removes a provision allowing the court to require a defendant to present a summary prepared by the Department of Motor Vehicles of the other courts in which the defendant also owes fines and costs. The bill requires the Commissioner of the Department of Motor Vehicles to return or reinstate any person’s driver’s license that was suspended prior to July 1, 2019, solely for nonpayment of fines or costs. Such person does not have to pay a reinstatement fee.

Some will argue that this represents another soft-on-crime move by the General Assembly.

It’s not.

This is a humane, sensible way to treat people who have committed minor infractions but are short of cash. Best of all, they can keep driving, which increases the probability that they’ll earn enough to finally pay off their bills.

Yanking driver’s licenses for unpaid fines and court costs was a terrible idea. Why did anyone ever think this method of collecting loot made sense?

This column was published originally at www.kerrydougherty.com.

Share this article


(comments below)


(comments below)


4 responses to “Yanking Drivers’ License Over Unpaid Court Costs Is Inhumane”

  1. johnrandolphofroanoke Avatar

    Some places in Virginia are notorious for catching speeding drivers. Drive down I 95 or I 66 and the speed limit is really 80 mph. The argument that the writer uses could apply to DUI convictions too. If a worker loses the driving license how are they going to get to work? How will a worker generate income without a license? How will a worker meet child support payments without a license? I foresee a long stretch of time ahead where law enforcement will relax for a variety of reasons.

  2. Jane Twitmyer Avatar
    Jane Twitmyer

    Glad to hear this stupid idea has been put to bed. As someone with just a bit of a lead foot … 5-10mph above sometimes, for which I had to change my insurance company … I continue to wonder why those trucks going 75-80 don’t get stopped.
    And as you say, the state has lots of other ways to collect fees and taxes. Put those unpaid fines on a plan in the tax department.

    1. Steve Haner Avatar
      Steve Haner

      Actually, having represented collections lawyers who do this work for five sessions, the government does NOT have many other ways to get the debtor’s attention, short of garnishing their wages or seizing real property. Impound their car and you are back to the problem of how do they work. I remain convinced that a big part of the problem, which nobody wants to solve, is that these fines and fees are too high and are viewed as easy revenue by both the state and localities.

      The Governor stopped this practice last summer with budget language, and FY 2020 will be the first full year of no suspensions for court debts only. Remind me around Thanksgiving to look up the first revenue report under the new regime. I know one of my clients and perhaps two stopped doing the work.

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    See the thing is, it can still cost you a bunch on your insurance or even lose your insurance but that is not as bad as losing your license.

    I have folks who end up owing taxes. This is no “forgiveness” You have to pay. You can get a payment plan.

    So this is the problem.

    taking the license is Draconian and just dumb because it cripples the ability to pay even over time.

    Do the fine. set up a payment plan. If they don’t pay, send collectors and ding their credit score, etc… the same as any other debt not paid.

    There’s sufficient downside to not paying your debt – speeding fine or other debt.

    I don’t know why we have chosen to do this in such a dumb way unless it some sort of hold-over from the Jim Crow era.

Leave a Reply