Driven out: Poverty, justice system strip thousands of right to drive

This article is the first in a three-part series about license suspensions in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

WYDaily.com is your source for free news and information in Williamsburg, James City & York Counties.

Raymond Wright is a banquet chef at the Doubletree Hilton whose life has been severely impacted by the loss of his driving privileges and the burden of his court fines and fees. (Steve Roberts, Jr./WYDaily)
Raymond Wright works as a banquet chef at the Doubletree hotel in Williamsburg. His life has been severely impacted by the loss of his driving privileges and the burden of his court fines and fees. (Steve Roberts, Jr./WYDaily)

For the past three years, Raymond Wright has worked as a banquet chef at the Williamsburg Doubletree. On a slow day, he’ll feed about 200 mouths. On a busy day, that number can reach 800. He does it all from a stainless steel work desk, topped by a cutting board loaded with fresh heads of lettuce and onions, and pounds of seasoned hamburger meat ready to be fried on a flat-top grill.

When Wright isn’t at work in the hotel’s kitchen, he’s at school, studying to become a professional chef. Wright is a student at the Culinary Institute of Virginia, where he pan-sears, roasts and sautés cuisine from nations like France, Greece, India and Taiwan.

On weekdays, Wright’s routine consists of a 5 a.m. to 3 p.m. shift at the Doubletree. After work he catches a ride to the City Center in Newport News for class. He leaves school around 10:30 p.m. to make his way home to Jamestown and catch a few hours of sleep before heading into work.

On weekends, Wright is in jail.

The offense occurred Dec. 22, 2015, the day Wright was stopped by a James City County police officer named Jonathan Evans. In what would have been a routine traffic stop, Wright was charged with operating a motor vehicle with a suspended license and driving with a suspended license, both charges are misdemeanors. Wright said Evans pulled him over because he was nearly asleep at the wheel, Evans did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

“I was tired man,” Wright said. “So I swerved a little bit and a cop pulled me over.”

Wright has been working in the kitchen at the Doubletree hotel in Williamsburg for the past three years. (Steve Roberts, Jr./WYDaily)
Wright has been working in the kitchen at the Doubletree hotel in Williamsburg for the past three years. (Steve Roberts, Jr./WYDaily)

Before his case was resolved in Williamsburg-James City County General District Court on March 31, Wright was stopped again by Officer Evans on March 23. He was charged with a second misdemeanor for operating a motor vehicle with a suspended license and handed a second driving with a suspended license charge.

When Wright’s first case was resolved March 31, he was found guilty on both charges and sentenced to six months in jail with five months suspended, according to court documents. He appealed his second case to the Williamsburg-James City County Circuit Court, and the second charge of operating a motor vehicle with a suspended license was dropped by the prosecutor.

According to court records, Wright was allowed to serve his jail time on weekends.

Wright is one of more than one and a quarter million Virginians who live with one or more license suspensions on their record, according to data from the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles. Nearly one in four Virginia drivers (22.61 percent) have had their license suspended as of September, 2016.

The number of people in Virginia with suspended licenses is nearly equivalent to the entire population of the state Maine, according to United States Census Data. Of those suspensions, roughly half are for failure to pay court fines and fees.

According to data provided by the DMV, Williamsburg currently has 1,151 residents who have their privileges to drive suspended after non-payment of court fines and fees. James City County has 617 residents with suspended privileges and York County has 572 residents with suspended privileges for non-payment of court fines and fees.

‘Perpetual state of punishment’

In November, the United States Department of Justice filed an amicus curiae brief as part of Stinnie v. Holcomb, a class-action lawsuit pending against Virginia DMV Commissioner Richard Holcomb. The case charges the Department of Motor Vehicles, as represented by its commissioner, with violating the constitutionally protected interest of maintaining a valid driver’s license by not offering a hearing for those who have lost their licenses for failure to pay their court fines and fees.

“Enforcing debts against people who can’t afford to pay puts them in a perpetual state of punishment,” said Angela Ciolfi, one of the lead attorneys in the case. “They can never atone, especially compared to wealthier people who can just write a check and be back in good standing.”

Wright formally entered into a payment plan with the Williamsburg-James City County Circuit Court Clerk with this letter. He said it took him three years to pay off his $2500 in court fines, fees, and interest accrued while he was in the Virginia State Penitentiary. (Courtesy WJCC Circuit Court)
Wright formally entered into a payment plan with the Williamsburg-James City County Circuit Court Clerk with this letter. He said it took him three years to pay off his $2,500 in court fines, fees, and interest accrued while he was in the Virginia State Penitentiary. (Courtesy WJCC Circuit Court)

When a person does not pay their court fines and fees, Virginia law requires the indefinite suspension of their driver’s license until the fines and fees are paid. A court clerk’s office will transmit information about nonpayment to the Department of Motor Vehicles, wherein the suspension will take immediate effect.

The plaintiffs in Stinnie v. Holcomb allege that the DMV’s lack of procedural due process is unconstitutional under the due process clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which holds that no state can “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”

The Department of Motor Vehicles declined to comment on the case, instead deferring to the Commonwealth Attorney General’s office.

Michael K. Kelly, director of communication for the Attorney General’s office, cited the brief the office filed on behalf of the DMV.  

“After the court suspends a driver’s license,” he wrote. “[The] DMV merely receives that order and administratively enters it into the DMV database, thereby publishing the order of suspension and making it available to law enforcement personnel statewide.”

The Department of Motor Vehicles did comment on the 1.289 million license suspensions statewide, saying that they are statutorily obligated to suspend the licenses of any person who fails to pay court fines and fees when the order comes from a court clerk’s office. The department noted that a license suspension is just a temporary withdrawal of driving privileges.

“Every year, Virginia traps hundreds of thousands of low-income residents in debt and poverty by suspending their driver’s licenses for failure to pay court costs and fines,” said Ciolfi. “For many drivers, that means giving up their only mode of transportation to work, forcing them to choose between losing their jobs and risking jail time for driving illegally.”

Wright says he finished paying off his fines and fees in June 2016 for an offense that occurred in 2011. It came to a total of $2,500, which includes interest accrued on the original balance while Wright was incarcerated for the offense.

“I just got done paying those fines,” Wright said. “After being out three years.”

He says he still owes $400 in fees for the 2015 charge of driving while his license was suspended. He was also ordered to participate in the Virginia Alcohol Safety Action Program and other intervention programs. He owed $100 for his initial screening for drugs and alcohol, and will owe $40 each week for 26 weeks to keep up his screening regimen, all for a charge of driving on a suspended license.

The night in question

License suspensions are enacted for a whole host of reasons, not merely unpaid fines and fees. More than 200,000 Virginians have had their licenses suspended for administrative reasons like not having their insurance up to date. Another 95,004 Virginians are in a similar situation to Wright. They have a past record, served their time and paid off their court fines and fees, but then didn’t apply to have their license reinstated.

On the night of Sept. 23, 2011, Wright was arrested after a run in with James City County police. According to court records, Wright was driving his Dodge Magnum 58 miles per hour in a 25 mile per hour zone. Officer K. Scanlan tried to initiate a traffic stop when Wright passed her at 12:14 a.m.

Wright was driving this Dodge Magnum when he was arrested on Sept. 23, 2011. (Steve Roberts, Jr./WYDaily)
Wright was driving this Dodge Magnum when he was arrested on Sept. 23, 2011. (Steve Roberts, Jr./WYDaily)

Instead of stopping, Wright sped up, driving to the back of a Jamestown housing complex, where he sprang out of his driver’s seat and ran to the door of a nearby house. Scanlan tried to grab Wright, but he had opened the door to the house and was attempting entry. She placed her foot in the doorway.

The criminal complaint alleges Wright slammed the door on the officer’s foot about ten times before running through the house, escaping through a back door, and running into some nearby woods.

At 12:29 a.m., Wright was placed under arrest. Scanlan searched his vehicle and found a half-full handle of Pinnacle Cherry Vodka. The officer said she had smelled strong odor of liquor coming from the vehicle and from Wright. She conducted field sobriety tests on Wright, which he complied to, but failed. He blew slightly more than twice the legal limit on a breathalyzer, according to the complaint.

“Mr. Wright stated that he first drank alcohol when he was 18 years old,” read a record in Wright’s criminal file. “At the age of 25, he reported he experienced a family death which caused much emotional trauma. He began to drink vodka on a regular basis, stating he would drink approximately 1/2 gallon per week.”

Wright’s father, George, died on May 28, 1997. Wright said he was close to his father, who served as a deacon at the Morning Star Baptist Church, where his funeral and burial were held, according to his obituary. Wright’s father was employed for 25 years with Lowes Building Supply Warehouse in Newport News and was the provider for the family, Wright said.

According to Wright, his mother, Shirley Mae, is disabled and now receives a pension as income, which she uses to help her only son afford tuition for culinary school. The house where Wright was arrested for a DUI in 2011 shares the same address as his mother, according to court documents.

On Sept. 23, 2011, Wright was charged with a felony DUI and a felony charge of assaulting a law enforcement officer. He was sentenced to three and a half years, with two and a half years suspended, in the Virginia State Penitentiary. He ended up serving one year. After Wright got out, he never applied to have his license reinstated.

‘I do what I have to do’

The Williamsburg Area Transit Authority bus stop across from Kingsmill Road on Route 60 is not dissimilar to other WATA stops, except that it is the stop Wright uses to get to and from work.

The bus stop consists of a sign planted in the grass shoulder next to a four-lane divided highway. It does not have a bench nor a weather shelter. Wright crosses the four lanes of traffic every time he takes the bus to or from work at the Doubletree.

According to the WATA online trip planner, Wright’s commute to work takes about an hour, and his return trip home takes an hour and eighteen minutes. He spends additional time waiting at the bus stop, but said he still counts on the bus to get him around.

“Riding on the bus is not that bad,” Wright said. “Sometimes the bus runs late, some days the bus is overcrowded. Standing in the rain doesn’t bother me. I do what I have to do.”

Wright's day starts and ends at this bus stop in Jamestown. (Steve Roberts, Jr./WYDaily)
Wright’s day starts and ends at this bus stop in Jamestown. (Steve Roberts, Jr./WYDaily)

Williamsburg and James City County have the Transit Authority, but York County has no reliable system of providing transportation to the public. The lack of public transportation in York County makes it vital for offenders there to pay their court fines and fees, so they can apply for a restricted operator’s license and return to driving. Without it, they are forced to catch rides or walk.

Wright said he planned to enter the Virginia Peninsula Regional Jail on Dec. 16 to serve the final eight days of his sentence for driving with a suspended license.

According to Wright, his regular cell is near the front of the jail, in a section called intake. It’s where new prisoners are processed before they are assigned a cell block. Wright sleeps on a bunk bed lined with a mat. He’s given a blanket, sheet and washcloth — no pillow. His cell offers little privacy, except the toilet and sink, which are just behind a small wall.

“It’s like the size of a living room closet,” he said. “I hate it man.”

He has already spent 12 days in the cell, most of them weekends. After eight more days there, Wright will have served his time.

“I’m trying to get everything situated now so I can drive and get all this out of the way,” Wright said. “So I can just finally move on with my life. It’s been five years man, I’m still paying for something.”

Steve Roberts, Jr. can be reached at 757-565-1079 ext. 213