Without a driver's license and deep in debt to the courts, poor Virginians hope for fine collection reforms

Travis Fain
Contact Reportertfain@dailypress.com

After the first few times a resignation sets in, Farod Holman said.

A hopelessness, according to Judith Miller.

You begin to believe, said Zakiyy Shabazz, that no one in the system cares.

Like hundreds of thousands of other Virginians, each of these people lost their driver's license over unpaid court fines and fees. Holman has been in and out of jail for the last 10 years for repeatedly driving without a license and is unable, he said, to cover fines and court costs that likely top $5,000.

The 10th time he was caught, he served five months in jail.

Holman, 37, said has never had a Virginia driver's license. He left the military 17 years ago and moved to Virginia, but never transferred his license in state. By his recollection, he was pulled over and got a $50 fine.

"If I would have made it a priority, I probably could have paid it," Holman said. "But I just didn't. I was younger. ... When I really wanted to get a hold of it, it was just too far gone."

Some version of Holman's story plays out tens of thousands of times a year in Virginia, which requires courts to suspend driver's licenses whenever someone "fails or refuses to provide for immediate payment" of any criminal fine.

Last summer, attorneys with the Legal Aid Justice Center filed a federal lawsuit targeting this law, arguing that it creates a cycle of poverty. The law is unconstitutional, they said, because it does not take into account whether the person can afford to pay. The U.S. Department of Justice agreed and filed a brief in the suit.

Since that suit was filed, dozens of people who have lost their licenses have called the Daily Press, asking for updates, hoping the lawsuit will help them. There hasn't been much to tell them, but that is changing.

The case is pending. New court rules on future fine payment options go into effect Feb. 1. Gov. Terry McAuliffe filed legislation to change the law, and though it got a cool reception from the House Republican majority, there are signs of compromise in Richmond, where the General Assembly went into session a week and a half ago.

"I think when all three branches are working on something ... it's a pretty good signal that you're going to see things happen," said Del. Rob Bell, who chairs a key House subcommittee on criminal law.

What follows are the personal stories of people tangled in the system. Some simply didn't bother to pay their fines. Many legitimately cannot afford the fines they've racked up. Fines from multiple jurisdictions with different rules, mandatory down payments and requirements that payment plans be arranged in person often make plans they can afford hard to come by.

And, though the law suspending licenses over fines was meant to increase payments, it appears no one has studied whether it did so. In fiscal year 2016 alone Virginia court clerks assessed more than $454.4 million in fines and fees. They collected about 63 percent.

"I think there's pretty wide consensus that this is not good policy," said Angela Ciolfi, an attorney at the Legal Aid Justice Center. "I think there's just a certain amount of inertia."

Cory

Cory Mussenden lives in a Newport News Microtel with his pregnant fiancee and their 8-year-old child.

He has a job busing tables, and said he was thankful to get it.

Mussenden does not have a driver's license. He lost it over a charge that he said he didn't know about until a police officer pulled him over.

Luckily, the officer let him go. When his mother went online she found an old noise complaint with an unpaid fine.

That was several months ago. The 26-year-old told the Daily Press in late December that he still didn't know how much he owes and that he hadn't called court officials to find out. His fiancee, seven months pregnant, does the driving. Their car insurance went up after his license was suspended, from $90 a month to $150.

Online court records show a drunk in public charge from April on Mussenden's record and another from 2014. The Daily Press found no record of a noise complaint in online court records, which are not always complete and must be searched locality by locality.

Even if Mussenden knew how much he owes, and to whom, he said that doesn't mean he could pay it.

"It's kind of hard to pay the fines and then, at the same time, pay every bill that we have," he said.

Results?

Neither the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles nor the state Supreme Court, which oversees all lower courts, can say whether the automatic suspension law has increased collections.

The legislature approved a study committee last year to answer that question, but it never met because, four months later, the Justice Center filed its lawsuit. The committee's authorizing resolution says suspensions "may in fact adversely affect the ability to collect unpaid fines and costs."

Del. Manoli Loupassi, who sponsored the study resolution, has legislation this year that will likely be the vehicle for GOP-backed reforms.

Annual collection rates are difficult to calculate because fines are often assessed in one year and paid in another. Fine collections are a multimillion-dollar business, though, and just who should collect once they go delinquent has been a low-simmering political fight in Virginia for years.

The private collection industry has pushed to block local treasurers from getting the work, or at least from charging the collection fees of up to 35 percent that law firms and other collectors charge.

Judy

Suicide hangs in Judith Miller's mind.

At 63, she has a pain and numbness in her feet. She had lung surgery this month.

"I've been diagnosed with lung cancer among my happy, cheerful life," she told the Daily Press.

Miller lost her license in the spring over what apparently began as a minor speeding ticket. She said the night before she was due in court on that ticket her grandson was in a horrendous car crash and was airlifted to a hospital.

Her record shows a failure to appear charge in Mathews County, along with a speeding ticket and a charge of petit larceny. The fines add up to at least $600, but online court records often don't give a full accounting of what's owed.

After the state took her license, Miller drove anyway. She said she relies on an oxygen machine, can't drink the water at her house and needs to drive to a grocery store.

"It seems like the way you punish for everything is the privilege to drive," she said. "It is a necessity to drive."

She compares state fine collections to a title loan outfit: You don't pay, they take your car.

"The cavalry is not coming to save me," she told the Daily Press. "Help is not on the way. I do not want to pass a smile on. I do not want to pray for my enemy. I want to run, run, run, run."

900,000

More than 200 people have called the Legal Aid Justice Center since attorneys filed their lawsuit, telling "the same story over and over and over again," Ciolfi said.

They're a drop in the bucket.

DMV figures from 2015 showed more than 900,000 people with licenses suspended over fines. Sixty-five percent of all outstanding suspensions and revocations in the state are for failure to pay a court debt, as opposed to dangerous driving, according to the lawsuit.

"The common thread running through all of them was there was no decision-maker at the time the license was suspended who took into account their ability to pay," Ciolfi said.

That is the lawsuit's goal: Not necessarily to end the practice of suspending licenses, but to require courts to consider whether the person who owes money can afford to pay it before suspending licenses.

A new edict from the state Supreme Court, set to take effect Feb. 1, requires lower courts to replace their current hodgepodge of payment plans with more streamlined options, and to offer community service instead of fines. It would also roll back required down payments.

It will require courts to consider a defendant's ability to pay, but only in laying out a payment plan's length and recurring payments.

McAuliffe would go further, with legislation this session to end the suspension of drivers licenses over unpaid fines altogether. The bill emerging from House Republicans will likely track the Supreme Court's changes, according to Bell, who chairs the House Courts of Justice Criminal Subcommittee.

There will be more community service options for those who cannot pay and payment plans will be more obtainable, Bell said. Other logistical changes to ease and shorten the path back to a valid drivers license are queued up as well.

But for those who refuse to pay?

"That's not a group that we can help," Bell said.

Zakiyy

Zakiyy Shabazz expects precisely nothing to change.

"The guys that are going to be reviewing this are on the other side of the table," he said. "They're not going to [care] about my story."

Shabazz, 27, has three children and a fiancee with a fourth. His license was suspended over unpaid fines and child support long ago, originally stemming from traffic tickets he didn't get on top of.

"With things going on, household things, regular life things," he said. "Then it goes up and up."

The interest rate on unpaid fines is 6 percent a year.

Shabazz doesn't live near a bus line. It would cost him $600, he said, just to start a payment plan. He owes Henrico County alone at least $5,000, and he owes fines to three other court systems as well.

In addition to a string of minor traffic and failure to appear charges on his record from 2008 to 2012, Shabazz has a 2012 grand larceny charge from a check floating scheme.

"I take responsibility for any of my actions, any wrongdoing and the repercussions," he said. "At the same time, I don't believe that has anything to do with driving. I feel like driving is a totally separate issue unless ... you endangered people with driving."

"The courts are offering punishment for something," Shabazz said, "but they're not offering a solution."

The system

Ciolfi said the Justice Center did an informal review of other states and all but 17 suspend licenses for at least some unpaid fines.

Twenty-four do so only for unpaid traffic fines, which was Virginia's method until 1994, when the state added all criminal fines. Nine other states also use this method.

Those who lose their license often find themselves in trouble with multiple courts at once, especially as charges of driving on a suspended license mount up. Payment plans must be reached with each court system before the DMV will reinstate a license, and most courts require people to negotiate plans in person, Ciolfi said.

Down payments vary up to 50 percent, she said. After that, the DMV's reinstatement fee starts at $145.

"And then the minute that you are a penny late or a day short on any of those payment plans, you lose your license again," Ciolfi said.

It can be challenging, even for the people who owe fines, to find out how much they owe. Online records are often incomplete. Attorneys compiling information for the Justice Center's lawsuit ran into clerks who made that information "really difficult to get," Ciolfi said.

Donna

Donna Mercer Gibson has a serious, if brief, criminal record.

Breaking and entering. Burglary. Grand larceny. Entering a house to commit assault and battery. In 2010 she was part of a crime spree across at least four counties in the foothills of western Virginia. She served three and a half years, with the rest of her sentences suspended. The judge, she said, saw remorse.

"I was praying to get caught," Gibson said. "I knew the life I was leading was wrong."

It was drugs, she said. Drugs to numb the pain of childhood rape.

Altogether, Gibson figures she still owes $6,000 in court costs, largely for her court-appointed attorney. She's paid more than $4,000 to various jurisdictions, chiseling it out of the $734 she gets each month in disability pay.

She mails checks to each of four different courthouses and provided records to prove it. Sometimes it's $50, sometimes $75. After her husband's bypass surgery, and when her mother-in-law died, Gibson said she cut the payments back to $25 a month.

Then came a letter from Bedford County. Pay your fine in full, about $3,000, or your license will be suspended.

The 56-year-old said she called repeatedly. It turned out at least one of Gibson's payments had posted to someone else's account and, in the end, the photocopied checks Gibson provided proved she'd made payments, even if they weren't always as much as promised in her payment plan. She kept her license.

"I never want to hurt people again," Gibson said. "You're not just taking materialistic things. You're taking people's security, their privacy."

'Merits a review'

Former Del. Whitt Clement sponsored the 1994 legislation targeted by this lawsuit.

In addition to suspending licenses for people who don't pay their fines, the bill required circuit and district courts to accept checks and credit cards. It was a broad bill, almost a housekeeping measure.

The late Hunter B. Andrews, Senate majority leader at the time, sponsored the bill in the Senate. The final vote to approve was unanimous.

Twenty-two years later, Clement is a respected lobbyist and not so sure the change was a good idea.

"We've always viewed driving as a privilege," he said. "Over time what has traditionally been viewed as a privilege has become more and more considered a right."

"To deprive a person of a use of a motor vehicle without due process ... the law merits a review," he said. "You always have those who abuse the system, but there are also those who don't have the money to pay the fines, and they've got to get to and from work."

Westley

Westley Shives hasn't had a valid driver's license for 10 years, a full a quarter of his life.

Shives said he didn't know his license was suspended until a police officer pulled him over. He was working as a heating and air service tech at the time, but when his boss found out, he was fired.

Now, Shives said, he does whatever he can. He's looking for restaurant work. He said he hasn't had a job that pays more than $9 an hour since losing his license. His fines, he said, are upward of $6,000 and accruing interest. He said he talked to Fairfax County about a payment plan, but they want 10 percent down.

"I just can't do that," he said. "I barely have an extra $25 a month. My wife's on disability."

"I'm no angel," Shives said. "However, I'm trying to change that, and I don't want to sound cliched, but I've found God. I've gotten married. By taking somebody's license you make it so that it is very hard for them to find work. ... It's either go hungry and homeless and pay those fines or feed my family and pay my bills."

Fain can be reached by phone at 757-525-1759.

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