License suspensions lifted for 600,000 Virginians this summer

Published: Apr. 11, 2019 at 4:08 PM EDT
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At the Valley Metro bus station in Roanoke, you can find plenty of people waiting, including Talita Hudson.

"Because my driver's license, it got suspended," she said.

A couple of years ago, Hudson was charged with public intoxication, and, because she was unemployed, she says she couldn't pay the fine. The court suspended her license.

"I have to call the Medicaid company to get transport to doctor's appointments, I have to find other people around to get rides," she said.

However, last week, the Virginia General Assembly

like Hudson's. The measure received broad bipartisan support.

Under the old law, if you fail to pay court fees, your license can be suspended, whether or not those fees are driving-related. The General Assembly put an end to that, with a budget amendment proposed by Gov. Ralph Northam.

"I feel fantastic," said Republican Virginia State Senator Bill Stanley. Stanley has been fighting for this change for the last three years, and encouraged Northam to propose the amendment.

"As a trial lawye,r I see it in our courtrooms every day: people just cannot afford to pay these fines and court costs," said Stanley.

But opponents of the measure have argued that taking away licenses is one of the few ways to force people to pay their fines.

"That's the rationale that's been used to justify this law over the years," said Attorney O Randolph Rollins.

Augusta County Commonwealth's Attorney Tim Martin

, saying that without license suspensions, people wouldn't pay and costs would be shifted to taxpayers.

"Right now, the burden for paying for this courthouse and paying for the proceedings within it lies with the criminal. If we no longer collect those fines and costs, that burden is going to fall on the innocent." Martin said. "It impacts you in the sense that if they don't collect the fines and costs from the people that are responsible for committing the crimes, you're going to have to pay for it in the form of increased taxes."

Martin said increased taxes would be needed to pay these fines.

Virginia collects about $10 million a year from people who pay to reinstate their licenses after they've been suspended for unpaid fines and costs.

Rollins worked alongside the General Assembly to end the license suspensions. He believes people will be in a better position to pay fines and court costs if they have their licenses.

"They've been limited in their ability to drive, and work, and actually pay these fines that they owe," said Rollins

The General Assembly's change doesn't end all suspensions, such as for drunk or reckless driving. And because it was passed as a budget amendment, the measure is only temporary and will expire next July if not renewed.

"We're gonna have to come back next year and fix this and make it more permanent," said Stanley.

The budget amendment also reinstates driving privileges for the more than 627,000 Virginians who currently have their licenses suspended.

The Legal Aid Justice Center of Virginia has also sued over the practice, arguing that it unfairly punishes poor people. In December, the judge in that case

against the DMV, ordering Commissioner Richard Holcomb to reinstate the driver's licenses of the plaintiffs named in the lawsuit.