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Bill again filed to end license suspensions for court debt

The first bill prefiled by a Virginia senator for the upcoming General Assembly session seeks to end a policy of suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid court fines, which is also the subject of a lawsuit in a Charlottesville federal court.

SB1, filed by Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Moneta, seeks to repeal the requirement that the driver’s license of a person convicted of violating the law who fails pay court fines be suspended.

The bill requires the commissioner of the Department of Motor Vehicles to return or reinstate any person’s driver’s license suspended prior to July 1, 2020, solely for nonpayment of fines or costs.

A similar bill from Stanley died during the 2019 General Assembly session when four Republicans on the House Courts of Justice subcommittee — including Del. Rob Bell, R-Albemarle — voted unexpectedly to kill the bill.

This is the third time Stanley has proposed this legislation.

However, Stanley is not the only person seeking to change the law — a lawsuit, Stinnie v. Holcomb, was filed in 2016 by the Legal Aid Justice Center and McGuireWoods LLP challenging the constitutionality of the law.

The case was earlier dismissed, but was revived by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year when the appeals court allowed plaintiffs to amend their complaint.

The Attorney General’s office has argued in U.S. District Court that the issue has been at least temporarily assuaged, pointing to a budget amendment introduced this year by Gov. Ralph Northam. The measure ends the state’s practice of suspending driver licenses for unpaid court fees and fines and to reinstate the driving privileges for those who currently have their licenses suspended, she said.

Counsel for the plaintiffs have countered that Northam’s amendment to reinstate licenses only lasts until July 2020, at which point — if the law has not been repealed — Northam will have to propose another budget amendment.

In July, U.S. District Judge Norman K. Moon granted a trial delay to give the General Assembly a chance to pass a permanent fix.

In his memorandum opinion, Moon wrote that, “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.”

The trial, originally set for August, will now occur some time after the legislative session ends in spring 2020.


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