On Tuesday morning, Angela Battle of Richmond entered the Summit Avenue office of Drive-to-Work, an organization that helps people to restore their driving privileges, in order to make a payment on her court fines.
Her inability to pay the fines resulted in the suspension of her driver’s license, and for the past three months, life had been “really hard,” as she had to make decisions about taking the risk of driving without a license.
But when she walked into the office, she was met with a surprise — her driver’s license had been restored as the result of a budget provision that took effect Monday to reinstate driver’s licenses suspended because of unpaid court fines and costs.
“Driving has been bad — when police [are] behind you, and you get to sweating, it’s not a good thing,” Battle said. “I never thought that I would have my driver’s license back today because that’s exactly what I came to do — pay the fine or to work towards getting it. I’m really happy.”
More than 600,000 drivers have suspended licenses solely because of an inability to pay court fees and costs, while others are dealing with additional reasons for suspension, such as convictions for driving on a suspended license, driving under the influence, or drug-related crimes.
For those facing only court fees and costs, the reinstatement fee will be waived as part of the new policy, and if an individual can prove they previously held a license, they will not have to take written or road skills tests. Drivers are still obligated to pay the court fines and costs.
The Department of Motor Vehicles will be contacting Virginians with suspended licenses about specific compliance needs for reinstatement, according to the DMV website.
Battle is part of an initial wave of 30,732 Virginians who can drive today but couldn’t a few days ago, DMV Commissioner Richard Holcomb said. When the budget provision went into effect Monday, DMV computers removed the suspension obstacle for 953,917 people who owed court fees and fines.
Of those, 29,560 who had only an outstanding court fine holding them back have gotten their licenses restored, and an additional 1,172 customers either went to the DMV or used its online services to meet additional compliance issues to get back on the roads.
Gov. Ralph Northam said Tuesday that the previous policy of suspending licenses did not reflect his “Eastern Shore common sense.”
“If you want someone to pay their fines and fees, how are they supposed to pay them if you can’t get to work?” Northam said at the Richmond Drive-to-Work office as part of a 10-stop tour of mobile DMV locations.
“They have to make a decision — do I not work, or do I take a chance and drive without a license? And that just leads to more problems.”
The new budget provision amounts to a one-year freeze on court-debt driver’s license suspensions that expires July 1, 2020. The General Assembly would have to pass legislation to make the change permanent.
Last week a federal judge denied a request to dismiss a class-action lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Virginia’s law that automatically suspends the driver’s licenses of people who cannot afford to pay court costs and fines.
U.S. District Judge Norman K. Moon wrote, “although the budget amendment may indeed reflect shifting political winds ... future enforcement of [the driver’s suspension law] remains reasonably possible such that this case is not moot.”
Moon postponed the trial, set for August, to give the General Assembly a chance to pass a permanent fix during the one-year freeze.
Drive-to-Work President Randy Rollins said Tuesday that his organization has been trying to get the law changed for 10 years. He commended the governor for proposing the policy as a budget amendment in order to raise its chances of passing, after similar legislation had been killed in a House of Delegates subcommittee.
Northam said suspending licenses for outstanding court fines and costs is an issue of inequity, similar to education or health care. Low-income people were disproportionately affected by the previous policy, he said, and this particular inequity was one he felt the legislature and his administration could take quick action on.
“For those 600,000 Virginians, I just am very pleased to stand here today and just let everybody know across the commonwealth of Virginia that that is one inequity we’re going to eliminate here,” Northam said.
Lenard Bosket Jr., who owes more than $2,000 in court fines and is a client of Drive-to-Work, said the new law will not immediately restore his license because he has other matters on his record. But by eliminating the court fines and costs requirement for reinstatement, there are fewer obstacles in his way, he said.
“I have a little ways to go, but this helps me out so tremendously,” Bosket said. “It’s like a breath of fresh air.”