This case challenges the constitutionality of a Virginia statute that requires the automatic suspension of the driver’s licenses of people who fail to pay court fines and fees. No inquiry is ever made as to the defendants’ ability to pay. Reimbursement of the court-appointed lawyer’s services are also included in the fees. Licenses are only reinstated when the court debt is paid in full or when people are able to obtain a payment plan. A hefty down payment is required before being placed on a payment plan. Further, motorists must pay a reinstatement fee of $145.00. Nearly one million Virginians (approximately 1 in 6 drivers) currently have suspended licenses for failure to timely pay fines and fees, and from 2011-2015, Virginians were sentenced to 1.74 million days in jail for driving on a suspended license. The suspension hinders defendants from getting and keeping their jobs.
The district court dismissed the complaint in 2017, but the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and permitted plaintiffs to file an amended complaint. Plaintiffs filed an Amended Complaint in September 2018. The District Court heard plaintiffs’ motion for preliminary injunction on November 15, 2018.
On December 21, 2018, the Court granted Plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction, concluding that Plaintiffs were likely to succeed on the merits of their procedural due process claim because the Commissioner of Virginia’s Department of Motor Vehicles was suspending licenses without providing an opportunity for those drivers to be heard.
A driver’s license is a property interest protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. Once issued, it may not be taken away without affording a licensee procedural due process—notice and an opportunity to be heard. With respect to notice, the Court found that the notice provided was inadequate: at the time notice was provided, license suspension was merely a possibility; there was temporal disconnect, making it questionable as to whether the notice was actually notice or a “mere gesture”; and Plaintiffs lacked notice of an opportunity to present their objections. With respect to a hearing, the Court concluded that the law did not provide for any procedural hearing, let alone a meaningful hearing at a meaningful time, as required by due process. For these reasons, the Court found Plaintiffs were likely to succeed on the merits of their procedural due process claim.
The Court further found that Plaintiffs were likely to suffer irreparable harm in the absence of preliminary relief—license suspensions made it impossible for people to carry out necessary tasks, attend medical appointments, maintain a steady job, etc. Only the restoration of Plaintiffs’ licenses and the prevention of further suspensions could redress these injuries. Finally, the Court found that the balancing of the equities and public interest weighed in favor of a preliminary injunction. The harm caused to Plaintiffs by the enforcement of the law outweighed Virginia’s interest in the collection of court fines and costs, which, in any event, were not furthered by a license suspension scheme that failed to consider an individual’s ability to pay and provide individuals with an opportunity to be heard.
On June 28, 2019, the Court denied the Commissioner’s motion to dismiss the case as moot, finding that the Budget Amendment, which temporarily eliminated enforcement of the statute pursuant to which drivers’ licenses were automatically suspended for failure to pay court fines and costs, neither rendered the case constitutionally moot nor prudentially moot. However, the Court granted the Commissioner’s motion to stay, allowing a stay to remain in effect until the 2020 Virginia General Assembly convenes and decides whether or not to repeal the law.
During its 2020 regular session, the Virginia General Assembly passed (and Governor Northam signed into law) legislation that, effective July 1, 2020, eliminates § 46.2-395 from the Code of Virginia and requires the DMV Commissioner to reinstate, without payment of fees, driving privileges that had been suspended by courts under § 46.2-395. See 2020 Va. Acts ch. 965. The parties therefore agreed that the case was moot and stipulated that the case should be dismissed. On May 7, 2020, the court adopted the parties’ stipulation of dismissal and dismissed the action as moot.
The court retained jurisdiction to decide the issue of whether to award attorneys’ fees. On July 2, 2020, Plaintiffs moved for attorneys’ fees and litigation expenses.
You can find a detailed summary and case documents via the Civil Rights Litigation Clearinghouse.