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Being poor is not a crime, DOJ rules in recent lawsuit

Back in July, a major issue was brought to the attention of the U.S. Department of Justice regarding the practice of suspending driver’s licenses here in Virginia. According to a lawsuit filed on behalf of roughly 1 million Virginians, police in our state have been suspending and even revoking residents’ driver’s licenses simply because they were unable to pay fines or court fees.

As you can imagine, many people rely on their driving privileges to get to and from work. Without a driver’s license, a person would have to choose between losing their job and choosing instead to drive on a suspended license. Both choices had steep costs and made many feel like they were being punished for being impoverished.

Thankfully, this was a sentiment the DOJ agreed with this month when it ruled on the lawsuit that challenged our state’s license suspension practice in regards to unpaid fines and court fees. As a story for WTOP explains, the practice of punishing the poor “violates the U.S. Constitution’s due process guarantee,” which is something we all should consider moving forward.

The road to the lawsuit

As some in Virginia probably realize, the lawsuit filed with the DOJ didn’t just come out of nowhere. According to a July article for Slate magazine, more than 900 drivers in Virginia have lost their licenses as a result of their inability to pay back a fine or a court fee associated with a criminal charge.

Many crimes, including driving under the influence and accumulating too many points on your driving record, can result in a license suspension in our state. In order to get your license back, you are often required to pay steep fines and court fees – a tall order for someone who is already low on funds.

What the DOJ decision means for the future

Even though it’s unclear how the DOJ’s decision will affect those who had their license suspended because they were unable to pay fines and fees, it’s possible that the recent media coverage of the case will turn a spot light on the importance of protecting your civil rights when facing a criminal charge. It may also highlight the remedies one can seek with the help of an attorney when it becomes apparent that your rights have been violated by misconduct.

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