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Report: Court costs can be crippling for low-income drivers

(AP) Kimberly Hopkins was so strapped for cash, she was selling her blood plasma to make ends meet. When a court socked her with a $25 monthly payment for a speeding ticket and court costs, the divorced mother of four simply couldn’t pay.

“Sometimes I just did not have it at the end of the month,” the 44-year-old Amherst County resident said.

So she defaulted on the payment plan and her driver’s license was suspended. She continued driving, out of necessity, and got caught, resulting in more fines and costs. Her total court obligation swelled to about $1,500 — an impossible sum for Hopkins, who by then was unemployed and unable to legally drive anywhere to apply for jobs.

The Legal Aid Justice Center says Hopkins’ case illustrates a problem plaguing thousands of low-income Virginians as traffic courts have been slow to implement suggested reforms. People who can’t pay lose their license and can’t drive to work without violating the law and risking even more fines or even a 10-day jail term that’s mandatory for a third conviction of driving on a suspended license.

“It’s kind of like a spiral,” Hopkins said in a telephone interview. “I wasn’t trying to break the laws, but I didn’t know what else to do.”

She’s not alone. The Legal Aid Justice Center says more than 900,000 Virginians — about one in six of the state’s drivers — had their licenses suspended because of unpaid court costs or fines in 2015.

The center outlined the problem in its recent report: “Driven Deeper Into Debt: Unrealistic Repayment Options Hurt Low-Income Court Debtors.”

The organization, which began focusing on the issue about three years ago, noted that the Virginia General Assembly last year said courts must put their payment plan policies in writing. And a year ago, the policy-making state Judicial Council recommended that courts abandon onerous debt-collection practices and develop policies and payment plans to help avoid driver’s license suspension.

The center analyzed policies of 105 general district courts and found payment plans widely vary and often fall short of the Judicial Council recommendations.

Brandon Marshall, whose driver’s license has been suspended since 2011, tried to set up payment plans after racking up about $3,500 in fines and court costs in five localities.

The 23-year-old Newport News resident said he had been working through a temp agency, but was only making about $50 a day — not enough to pay his court debts and daily expenses. He said most employers insist on workers having a driver’s license to demonstrate reliability, but he hoped to land a job within walking distance of his sister’s house.

Marshall said when he tried to set up payment plans, three localities said he had to make a 50 percent down payment.

“It’s a lot,” he said. “It’s unjust and unfair.”

Lawyers say the system is stacked against low-income traffic violators. Wealthier drivers just pay their costs and keep their licenses, but courts don’t try to determine how much poorer motorists can afford to pay monthly.

“It’s just not a level playing field for people without means,” said Charlottesville attorney Jonathan Blank, who helped Hopkins get her license reinstated. “We have a means-based test to see if someone qualifies for a court-appointed attorney, but not for how we are going to punish someone. Why can’t we do it on the front end and not the back end?”

Virginia Supreme Court Chief Justice Donald Lemons says he has appointed a task force to draft a court rule directing statewide compliance with the reforms, because “progress has varied” in implementing them.

“I believe that having such a rule will encourage consistency and fairness regarding these issues throughout the commonwealth,” Lemons said in an email.

Norfolk attorney Peter G. Decker III says he has represented hundreds of clients who have lost their driving privileges because of unpaid court costs. He said some violators “thumb their nose” at the law but others “are just honest people trying to put food on the table, so they have to take a chance and drive.”

“There’s a whole class of people out there who need to go to work but aren’t supposed to be driving,” Decker said.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

One comment

  1. Ultimately what needs to be done is a centralized collection procedure for fines and costs. One of the costs that many do not pay is that court appointed attorneys fee. I would suggest that Judge Lemons looks at DMV for such a nexus.

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