RICHMOND — The General Assembly temporarily stopped the practice of suspending the Virginia driver’s license of anyone who doesn’t promptly pay court fines or costs.
The legislature passed the major criminal justice reform Wednesday through a budget amendment requested by Gov. Ralph Northam that included language to end the policy. The House voted 70-29 and the Senate voted 30-8.
Because this amendment was done through the biennial budget, lawmakers will have to return next session to permanently change the statute.
Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin, has been championing the repeal of the law for years. He’s pointed out that when people lose their licenses for this reason, they can’t drive to work and they lose their jobs. The practice disproportionately affects poor people and those in rural areas where there’s a lack of reliable public transportation. When people risk driving and get caught, they face additional charges and jail time. They get buried in court debt.
“They don’t have to drive in fear anymore because they’re trying to keep their job,” Stanley said on the Senate floor.
More than 620,000 Virginians have suspended driver’s licenses because they can’t quickly pay their court debt. By July 1, the Department of Motor Vehicles will reinstate their driving privileges.
One of them is Tory Felder, 55, who lives in Roanoke. He recently got out of prison and faced $14,000 in court debt to a few different courts in Hampton Roads.
“It helps out having the driver’s license and having that privilege that puts you in a good position to have a good-paying job,” Felder said.
He lives in northwest Roanoke, and he walks to work at Beamer’s 25, a restaurant near downtown. It takes him about 45 minutes to get there. He’s grateful for the employment, but he says he could work at other places with higher pay, but they aren’t located near the bus line.
When he used to work a part-time job, he said between his costs of living and the payment plan he was on to pay off his court debt, he had very little left. He’d like to better support his 16-year-old daughter, who wants to go to college.
“If you have a car to drive, you’re in a better position to keep better jobs,” he said. “I don’t blame anybody but myself. I put myself in this hole through the choices I made.”
The criminal justice reform was one of Northam’s priorities he highlighted in a speech at the opening of the General Assembly session in January. Two Democrats as well as Stanley sponsored bills aimed at addressing the issue. All of their bills died in a subcommittee of the House Courts of Justice due to concern over how to incentivize people to pay their court fines and fees.
Northam had included $9 million in his proposed budget revisions submitted at the end of last year to replace funding for trauma centers that have received money from the fees the DMV charges for reinstating suspended drivers’ licenses.
Currently, $100 of the $145 driver’s license reinstatement fee goes to fund trauma centers and the rest goes to the DMV. Those who will get their driver’s licenses reinstated as a result of this policy change will not have to pay the fee.
Even though the driver’s license bills failed, the funding remained in the budget. Stanley asked Northam to take one more crack at repealing the law, so Northam included language to do so in the budget.
The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus highlighted the policy as one of its priorities. African American people make up 20% of Virginia’s population but receive nearly half of the orders of suspension for unpaid court debt, according to the Legal Aid Justice Center.
Marcel Quinn watched the vote from the Senate gallery. He has a suspended license and owes about $6,000 in court debt. He’s looking forward to being able to drive his son to places outside the bus line, such as amusement parks.
“It just opens the door for so many more opportunities,” said Quinn, who is black.
The Legal Aid Justice Center and McGuireWoods filed a class action lawsuit last year challenging the constitutionality of Virginia’s statute automatically suspending the licenses of drivers who cannot afford to pay court costs and fines. The case is set for a trial in August.
The Legal Aid Justice Center said the lawsuit will continue because the move on Wednesday isn’t a permanent change.