Driving While Poor

July 15, 2016

Hundreds of thousands of low-income Virginians have had their drivers’ licenses unconstitutionally suspended for nonpayment of fines, according to a class-action lawsuit filed recently against the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles.

The Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC) brought the suit after its analysis found most Virginia courts are disregarding recommendations made by the state’s Judicial Council to adopt programs aimed at helping low-income residents pay off court costs and fines. The Virginia DMV automatically suspends the driver’s licenses of people who don’t pay court costs or fines, regardless of the reason.

The draconian system forces violators to choose between giving up their only mode of transportation to work and driving illegally. The suit argues that suspension of a driver’s license effectively functions as a “debtor’s prison” and violates the constitution.

LAJC asked The Hatcher Group for help framing and messaging around its “Drive Down the Debt” campaign designed to challenge these practices, and to educate the public and policymakers about the issue and the lawsuit. We worked with LAJC to develop core messages, talking points and strategic media outreach, resulting in an Associated Press story that received wide national pick-up. A Washington Post story quoted LAJC attorney Angela Ciolfi as well as plaintiff Neil Russo, a 61-year-old cancer survivor who can no longer drive himself to the doctor after repeated driver’s license suspensions.

In response to the lawsuit, the Washington Post editorial page declared “Virginia wages war on the poor with driver’s license suspensions,” agreeing that “it’s folly to treat poverty as a crime. It’s also unconstitutional.”