More than 600,000 Virginians — most of them poor and living on the edges of society — owe a debt of gratitude to Sen. Bill Stanley and Gov. Ralph Northam: As of July 1, they’ll have their driver’s licenses — which are currently revoked because of their inability to pay court fines, fees and costs — restored, and they’ll be able to re-enter society.
Stanley, a Franklin County Republican, had proposed a separate bill in the 2019 session of the General Assembly to accomplish the task. The legislation sailed through the Senate but hit a brick wall in the House of Delegates at the hands of Majority Leader Todd Gilbert of Shenandoah. Gilbert took a hard line when the bill came up in committee, decrying it as eliminating any accountability for people who break the law and fail to pay their fines. The majority leader bottled up Stanley’s bill in a House committee and killed it.
But Stanley, a lawyer in private life who’s seen the effects a revoked license can have on the poor, decided to continue his fight. In meetings with Northam and his staff, Stanley broached the idea that the governor, with whom he’d served in the Senate, could propose a budget amendment that would accomplish the job. When the Assembly reconvened earlier this month for a one-day veto session, Northam’s amendment passed the full House on 70-29 vote and the Senate on a 30-8 vote.
Addressing this inequity in Virginia’s court system is a matter of simple justice.
Suppose you get pulled over and ticketed for “improper equipment,” say a broken taillight, or an expired registration. If you’re a single mom with a couple of children working a minimum wage job, chances are that fines and court costs might well be the difference between buying bread and sandwich meats for your kids or not. Or it might be what you’d pay for the high blood pressure medication you need to stay healthy enough to work and support your family. So you make the choice to put your family’s well-being before a court bill — yes, it’s wrong, but on a moral plain, which is the greater good?
As the weeks and months go by, the notices and the bills from the court keep coming in the mail. With each one, you become more depressed, dreading going to the mailbox each day. Finally, a notice from the Department of Motor Vehicles arrives telling you that your license has been revoked for failure to pay what is now a hefty bill. You can’t legally operate your car now without risk of another ticket and another set of fines and fees. So what do you do? Some folks drive illegally in order to get to work, risking everything for their families, while others, out of fear, lose their jobs and their only means of support — and of paying those steadily rising fees.
Rent — or medicine or food or electricity — or the court fees. It’s a legal trap state officials say more than 627,000 Virginians are caught in. And the folks who are most affected are the poor who live in rural Virginia where there likely is no public transportation to get to work, the grocery or the doctor’s office. In other words, the parts of Virginia very much like those Stanley represents.
Over the course of his private career and his eight years in the Assembly, Stanley has seen how individuals and their families are affected by license revocation. After a while, it’s not enough to help one person at a time; you realize it’s the system that needs to be overhauled. And that’s where Bill Stanley was when the 2019 session convened: It was time to help hundreds of thousands of Virginians in one fell swoop, not one at a time.
According to Reason magazine, 41 states revoke driver’s licenses for failure to pay fines and court fees, but in recent years, there’s been a move afoot to abolish the practice. Both conservatives and liberals have come to view the practice as illogical and unfair. Illogical because, in revoking a license, the state removes the very means a person needs to earn a living and try to start working with the court to pay his debt. Unfair because it targets the poorest of the poor and only serves to knock them further down the economic ladder.
Contrary to what Stanley’s foes insinuated, court debts aren’t wiped away, nor is license revocation repealed for those who’ve been charged with dangerous driving infractions. What will happen July 1 is simple: If you have court debt you can’t pay, you won’t have the only means to earn a living, support your family and work to pay off that debt snatched away from you.
Our thanks — and the gratitude of 627,000 poor Virginians — go out to Sen. Stanley and his allies from across the political spectrum for putting the commonwealth at cutting edge of judicial reform.