Driven out: Report finds reforms haven’t fixed Virginia’s license suspension crisis

  • Gregory Sewell, a car salesman at Pearson Toyota in Newport News, says he paid nearly $12,000 to have his driver's license reinstated. (Steve Roberts, Jr./WYDaily)

    Gregory Sewell, a car salesman at Pearson Toyota in Newport News, says he paid nearly $12,000 to have his driver's license reinstated. (Steve Roberts, Jr./WYDaily)

  • Raymond Wright is a banquet chef at the Doubletree Hilton whose life has been severely impacted by the loss of his driving privileges and the burden of his court fines and fees. (Steve Roberts, Jr./WYDaily)

    Raymond Wright is a banquet chef at the Doubletree Hilton whose life has been severely impacted by the loss of his driving privileges and the burden of his court fines and fees. (Steve Roberts, Jr./WYDaily)

Despite court reforms, nearly one in six Virginian drivers have a suspended driver’s license due to court debt, according to a report from the Legal Aid Justice Center.

The report released Wednesday indicates few changes since January 2017 in the number of Virginia drivers with suspended licenses solely due to a failure to pay fines and fees.

Policy changes by the Supreme Court of Virginia and the General Assembly have produced few results, according to the report.

As of December 2017, 974,349 Virginians had lost driving privileges “at least in part due to court debt,” according to the report.

The widespread license suspension program has left some Hampton Roads residents struggling to make ends meet.

In December 2016, WYDaily published the first in a three-part series on license suspension in Virginia and the effects of license suspension on locals.

Raymond Wright, a banquet chef at the Williamsburg Doubletree when the first story was published, first lost his license after being convicted of driving while intoxicated.

Ever since, he struggled to earn his driving privileges back, according to WYDaily archives.

Wright is one of more than one and a quarter million Virginians who live with one or more license suspensions on their record, according to data from the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles. Nearly one in four Virginia drivers (22.61 percent) have lost their driving privileges as of September 2016.

The number of people in Virginia with suspended licenses is nearly equivalent to the entire population of the state Maine, according to United States Census Data.

Of those suspensions, roughly half are for failure to pay court fines and fees.

According to data provided by the DMV from 2016, Virginia Beach had 13,203 residents who have their privileges to drive suspended after non-payment of court fines and fees. Norfolk has 13,478 residents with suspended privileges.

The WYDaily investigative series “Driven Out,” about license suspension, found Virginians such as Wright who lost their license often struggled to pay their fines and fees. In Wright’s case, it took him three years to pay off $2,500 worth of fines and fees for an offense.

Freedom of Information Act requests to the Department of Motor Vehicles since that publication have been returned by the DMV with an estimated cost of $2700.01 for copies of new reports on license suspension.

The DMV cites the need to recoup costs for “complex programming” to retrieve the documents for most of the cost, but they say when reports are readily available they will be provided for free.

Wright wasn’t alone in his struggles.

In the case of Newport News car dealer Greg Sewell, he lost his license and was hit with a significant economic burden for failing to have insurance on his vehicle.

While the burden on Hampton Roads residents is often a personal one, the recent report from the Legal Aid Justice Center has said, despite changes in policy, there have been few changes in the total number of Virginians with a suspended license.

“It appears that these reforms have done little, if anything, to stem the breathtaking current of Virginians losing their licenses,” the report states.  

The center has been involved in litigation challenging the DMV Commissioner Richard Holcomb with violating the constitutionally protected interest of maintaining a valid driver’s license by revoking it without due process.

“Enforcing debts against people who can’t afford to pay puts them in a perpetual state of punishment,” said Angela Ciolfi, one of the lead attorneys in the case last year. “They can never atone, especially compared to wealthier people who can just write a check and be back in good standing.”

This story originally appeared in our sister publication, WYDaily.com.

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