McAuliffe looks to roll back driver’s license suspensions as part of criminal justice reform package
Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced Tuesday that he’ll push legislation this year to end Virginia’s practice of automatically suspending the driver’s licenses of people who fail to pay court costs and fines after a criminal conviction.
McAuliffe, a Democrat, called his proposals “common sense” reforms, but he demurred when asked how much support he expects to have in the Republican-controlled General Assembly. The governor’s office did not reveal specific legislative language and indicated some details have yet to be worked out.
McAuliffe’s proposal on the driver’s license issue, already the subject of a class-action lawsuit and constitutional scrutiny from the U.S. Justice Department, would also end suspensions for offenses unrelated to driving.
The nonprofit Legal Aid Justice Center is challenging the suspension policy in federal court, arguing it punishes the poor by stripping them of the ability to drive to work and earn money to pay off their fees. More than 900,000 Virginians’ licenses were suspended last year because of unpaid costs or fines, according to the group. In roughly 40 percent of those cases, the underlying offense had nothing to do with driving, the group says.
In a brief filed in the lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the suspension policy, the Justice Department said people facing license suspension over unpaid fines should be afforded due process in an inquiry into their ability to pay.
The state is contesting the Legal Aid lawsuit, saying the debate should be settled by policymakers, not the courts. The Supreme Court of Virginia has also moved to address the issue, approving a new rule that instructs courts to allow poor defendants to pay what they owe in installments or under a deferred plan and urges courts to use community service for those who can’t pay.
On Tuesday, McAuliffe echoed the argument that the suspensions impede many Virginians’ ability to work.
“That means that that factory worker from Floyd County whose job is 30 miles away in Christiansburg cannot lawfully drive to work and earn money to pay off those fines,” McAuliffe said. “It makes no sense.”
In a statement, House Speaker William J. Howell, R-Stafford, said the legislature will review the governor’s proposals, while urging caution on the license issue due to the pending lawsuit.
“I am very sympathetic toward individuals who get trapped in a vicious cycle of having their license revoked, not being able to drive to work, losing their job, and not being able to pay off court costs,” Howell said. “However, the General Assembly must be very careful as this issue is currently being litigated in court.”
Last year, Del. G. Manoli Loupassi, R-Richmond, won approval for a study of license suspension as a financial collection method. A joint subcommittee is scheduled to submit findings and recommendations by the first day of the 2017 session.
There have also been past bipartisan efforts to raise the grand larceny threshold. All have failed, leaving the number unchanged since 1980.
As he made the case for an increase, McAuliffe said a pair of Nikes that cost $65 in 1985 goes for $250 today, a price that means stealing the shoes could lead to a felony instead of a misdemeanor.
“I’m not here to excuse theft,” McAuliffe said. “But I am here to say that there has to be some proportionality in the punishment our courts hand out.”
Though some Democrats want to raise the threshold to $1,000 or more, a more modest increase to $500 has passed muster with some Republican lawmakers. The GOP-held Senate passed an increase to $500 last year, but the bill died in a House of Delegates subcommittee.
Del. Robert B. Bell, R-Albemarle, who chairs the House subcommittee on criminal law, has opposed bumping up the grand larceny threshold, saying it amounts to a “cost of living” increase for thieves.
In an interview Tuesday, Bell sounded similarly skeptical of the governor’s driver’s license proposal. He said “openness” exists for making allowances for defendants who may struggle to pay, but said fines are often the only penalty people face for breaking the law.
“The primary punishment for many criminal charges is the fine that the defendant pays,” Bell said. “If he doesn’t have to pay that, it’s hard to see how he’s being held accountable.”
McAuliffe declined to outline what efforts he has made to build Republican support.
“Until I get into the session, I don’t talk about who we’re meeting with,” McAuliffe said.