ESSAY- Not so 'fine': Suspending licenses hurts the poor
Do you believe that someone driving on a suspended license is dangerous? He or she may be, but chances are he's just a person who hasn't paid a fine for something as simple as a speeding ticket or failure to stop at a stop sign.
Virginia law provides that if people do not pay traffic fines by the due date, their license is automatically suspended. For most middle-class people, such a ticket is an inconvenience and a minor hit to the wallet.
Most tickets are at least $90. For an indigent person or a member of the working poor, this can be a major hit. Often the choice for them is paying rent or other essentials, or paying the ticket. If they don't pay the ticket and they're caught driving, it's a class-one misdemeanor punishable by jail and/or a fine.
For a first offense, the penalty is usually a fine and perhaps a suspended jail sentence. But if they're caught a second time, they're probably going to be looking at some active jail time– maybe a couple of days, maybe more, depending on the judge. The third time triggers a mandatory minimum sentence of at least 10 days in jail.
Remember this applies merely to driving while their license is suspended.
Almost invariably, the only people subjected to jail time for this type of offense are the indigent. Middle class people may grumble, but they get their license back and are not at risk of going to jail. An Army colonel recently was caught driving on I-95 with a suspended license. He had several outstanding unpaid tickets amounting to several hundred dollars. By the time he came to court, the tickets had been paid and his driver's license was in pristine condition. Indigent people without that kind of disposable income don't have that option.
"Distracting Miss Daisy"
A thought-provoking article, in the July/August issue of Atlantic Monthly, "Why stop signs and speed limits endanger Americans," explains why punishing the late Justice Lewis Powell (and countless thousands of other Americans) for rolling stops and dry-pavement "speeding" might actually make U.S. roads less safe than those in the U.K.
If you're thinking these people shouldn't have been ticketed in the first place, you're right, but remember human beings are an imperfect species, and a lot of people get traffic tickets. Late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell was the personification of rectitude. He failed to come to a complete stop one day while driving in Richmond and was given a ticket for a "rolling stop." He paid up. Who among us can say he's never been guilty of a rolling stop?
Obviously the purpose of suspending someone's license (in this context) is to insure that people do pay their fines. A middle class friend of mine confessed that, having experienced having his license suspended, if it weren't for the threat of another suspension, he might not pay his tickets.
Indeed, the threat has been so successful that it has undergone "mission creep." Licenses are now suspended for failing to pay fines and costs on regular criminal cases that have nothing to do with driving. Suspension has also been expanded to include non-payment of child support. The problem is, if you take away someone's driver's license for not paying child support, it can be a problem for him or her to get to work. This is obviously counterproductive; if parents can't work, they're probably not going to pay child support.
Virginia's late infamous Civil Remedial Fees (a.k.a. "abusive driver fees") exacerbated the situation of suspended licenses. Those fees, which could amount to $1,000 or more, began to affect the middle class, and so extreme was the ensuing public outcry that the General Assembly quickly repealed them
An organization has been formed to help people get their license back so they can work. It's a bipartisan group whose board includes a former Republican Attorney General and the Democratic leader in the House of Delegates. The name of the group is "Drive to Work" and its stated purpose is "...to assist low income and previously incarcerated persons to restore their driving privileges so they can drive to work and hold a job."
This group can help low-income people get a restricted license so they can drive to work, and can help them navigate the court system so they can eventually have their full driving privileges restored. The organization cites Virginia DMV statistics that more that 1 million drivers in Virginia had a suspended license in 2007.
The website for the organization is drivetowork.org, and the telephone number is 804-358-6727. Everyone who has a friend or loved one with a suspended license should contact this group and try to have their license restored, so they can indeed drive to work.
The author is a former Charlottesville Commonwealth's Attorney. He studied and taught Criminal Justice at Florida State University and currently serves as an assistant Commonwealth Attorney in Emporia and Greensville County.