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Advocates focusing on drug suspensions

Peter Vieth//September 27, 2017

Advocates focusing on drug suspensions

Peter Vieth//September 27, 2017//

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ankle-monitor_mainAdvocates who helped remove barriers for offenders trying to keep driving privileges in Virginia are turning their sights to laws that require license suspensions for crimes that have nothing to do with driving.

On Sept. 25, as it celebrated 10 years of education and service in helping ex-offenders get driver’s licenses back, leaders of the Richmond-based nonprofit called “Drive-to-Work” signaled a new emphasis on laws that yank licenses for non-driving crimes.

Non-driving suspensions, especially drug suspensions, are the target, said Drive-to-Work president O. Randolph Rollins, a former big firm lawyer and one-time state Secretary of Public Safety who turned to charity work.

“I am hopeful we can move forward with something that decouples the drug conviction from the driver’s license suspension,” Rollins told supporters.

More options for DUI defendants

There’s work afoot on another front. Two state legislators who spoke at Drive-to-Work’s “Second Chance” community luncheon are urging more flexibility for those convicted of DUI. Virginia law allows restricted driver’s licenses for some drunken driving offenders, but the license terms – nailed down in the code – can interfere with legitimate activities of life.

Del. G. Manoli Loupassi, R-Richmond, said a single mother cannot make a run to the grocery store under the standard restricted license. Parents cannot drive their children to non-school activities like soccer practice or ballet lessons.

“It seems to me people should be able to live their lives,” Loupassi said in an interview.

Loupassi and Sen. Ryan T. McDougle plan to propose a choice. If a DUI defendant agrees to wear a so-called “SCRAM” ankle bracelet that detects any alcohol use, the defendant could be allowed to drive anywhere, without restrictions.

The SCRAM option is both expensive and intrusive. The bracelet costs about $350 a month and it’s not removable by the user, Loupassi said. If any alcohol use is detected, the offender would face a probation violation charge.

Moreover, regardless of whether an offender chooses a restricted license or a SCRAM plan, the DUI offender’s car gets an ignition interlock installed. “If you’ve had anything to drink, the car won’t start,” Loupassi said.

The SCRAM plan “will provide some people with flexibility. You can wear long pants and drive around,” Loupassi said. “It also guarantees public safety,” he added.

A driver of reform

Loupassi and McDougle were recognized by Drive-to-Work for their leadership in getting license suspension changes through the 2017 Assembly. Special recognition went to House Speaker William Howell.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe and other leaders said Drive-to-Work played a key role in pushing for change. “Together, this legislative package represented a significant step in the right direction by holding people accountable in a way that allows them a reasonable chance to repay their debts to society while maintaining public safety,” McAuliffe said.

Rollins said his organization speaks with authority about barriers to gainful employment. “We have learned in serving people what the gaps in the law are,” Rollins said, citing 13 successful legislative reforms to address restoration of driving privileges in the past decade.

“We did not appreciate the impact of suspensions,” McDougle said about lawmakers’ early reaction when the issue was brought to their doorstep.

Statistics were persuasive.

“Last year, when I learned that more than 647,000 Virginians could not drive because they owed fines and costs to courts, I was appalled,” McAuliffe said. “You take away their driver’s license and they can’t work. If you can’t work, you can’t pay your court fines. This is the craziest thing I ever heard of.”

Reform emerged from what another leader termed an “unusual convergence of events” where the executive, legislative and judicial branches all played a role. At the behest of Virginia Supreme Court Chief Justice Donald W. Lemons, court administrators already had made changes to make it easier for offenders to pay off their court debts and avoid suspension.

Justice William C. Mims said a key element of the court’s reform was to make sure offenders were offered payment plans, openly and readily, without having to ask. The court directed that down payments not be mandatory in every case.

Legislators used the court’s plan as a blueprint and hammered out details in February.

“All of this reflects flexibility,” Mims said. “It also reflects the better angels of our nature. Justice must be grounded in mercy,” he said, acknowledging the words of Abraham Lincoln.

Expert guidance

Rollins said Drive-to-Work, in its 10-year existence, has served more than 2,000 clients in need of driver’s license restoration and helped ex-offenders repay nearly $1 million in fines and costs.

After a decade helping beleaguered ex-offenders resume productive lives, the Drive-to-Work team now is offering education programs, including a one-hour seminar in Virginia prisons as part of the state’s prisoner re-entry program.

Virginia not alone

As leaders hailed Virginia’s reforms, a Charlottesville-based legal aid organization continued to shine a light on the issue. The Legal Aid Justice Center released a report Sept. 26 showing nearly every state and the District of Columbia have laws permitting suspension of driver’s licenses for court debts. Some states require such suspensions, the report said.

The LAJC sued Virginia last year to force reforms of the state’s license suspension policies. A federal judge dismissed the action and LAJC appealed to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Similar challenges have been filed in four other states, the organization said.

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