McAuliffe: Don’t suspend drivers license if someone can’t pay court costs

RICHMOND, Va. - Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe wants to eliminate the practice of suspending the drivers license of an offender who cannot afford to pay court costs.

McAuliffe announced the proposal as a part of his criminal justice reform agenda for the upcoming General Assembly session.

The Governor said nearly 650,000 Virginians currently have their license suspended because they cannot afford to pay their legal fees or court costs.

McAuliffe said that creates a "vicious cycle" where offenders cannot easily get to work to make money to pay off their court fees in order to get their license back.

"That means that, that factory worker from Floyd County whose job is 30 miles away in Christiansburg cannot lawfully drive to work and earn money to pay off those fines," McAuliffe said.  "That makes absolutely no sense."

Gov. Terry McAuliffe

Gov. Terry McAuliffe

Following questions from reporters Tuesday, McAuliffe said he believes the proposal is "not controversial."

Republican leaders at the General Assembly are urging caution before taking legislative action because of a federal lawsuit filed against Virginia that challenges the practice of license suspension for failure to pay court fines.

The case filed in the Western District of Virginia is still ongoing.

“I am very sympathetic toward individuals who get trapped in a vicious cycle of having their license revoked, not being able to travel to work, losing their job, and not being able to pay off court costs," Speaker of the House William Howell said in a statement Tuesday. "However, the General Assembly must be very careful as this issue is currently being litigated in court. We will begin carefully reviewing all of Governor McAuliffe’s legislative proposals relating to criminal justice reforms this coming session.”

Drivers license

Few people know the realities of the "vicious cycle" of license suspension as Ben Heppert, who lost his license four years ago after a DUI conviction. Heppert said he has completed all of the necessary steps to get his license back; however, because he cannot pay off his court fees, his license remains suspended to this day.

"We've put forth effort to make change in our life... but we can't do it with these roadblocks in front of us," Heppert said. He added that he is cautiously optimistic that legislators will come to an agreement on McAuliffe's proposal.

Tuesday, The Governor's Office also laid out several other criminal justice reforms they plan to pursue during session.

  • Eliminating the suspension of drivers license for non-driving related offenses
  • Making it easier for defendants who plead guilty to appeal based on new or untested DNA evidence
  • Raising Virginia's felony larceny threshold from $200 to $500

Aides said the exact language of the Governor's proposals are still in development. The General Assembly convenes January 11.