Driven out: Unregulated, courts set own terms for collecting fines and fees from Virginia drivers

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

Gregory Sewell, a car salesman at Pearson Toyota in Newport News, says he paid nearly $12,000 to have his driver's license reinstated. (Steve Roberts, Jr./WYDaily)
Gregory Sewell, a car salesman at Pearson Toyota in Newport News, says he paid nearly $12,000 to have his driver’s license reinstated. (Steve Roberts, Jr./WYDaily)

Gregory Sewell is a tall and slender car salesman at Pearson Toyota in Newport News. His eyes are regularly shaded by the brim of a baseball cap emblazoned with the Toyota logo. He projects a gregarious nature and honest character, one that counteracts the typical profile of a used car salesman.

While Sewell may be atypical in the world of car sales, he’s not atypical as a driver. Sewell is one of more than one and a quarter million Virginians who live with at least one license suspension 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.

On Feb. 20, 2013, Sewell was stopped in Norfolk for improperly changing lanes. He was found guilty on the charge at Norfolk General District Court about a month later. He was also driving unknowingly without insurance, he said.

In the Commonwealth of Virginia, operating an uninsured motor vehicle is a misdemeanor offense that requires the Department of Motor Vehicles to administratively suspend the driver’s license and all registration certificates of any titled owner, unless the driver has previously paid an Uninsured Motor Vehicle fee of $500 for the specific vehicle they are operating. The police officer who stopped Sewell let him off with a warning, but Sewell still suffered harsh penalties from his creditors and insurance company.

Sewell said his girlfriend at the time had canceled the couple’s insurance policy without alerting Sewell. “Basically, she cancelled the insurance completely,” he said. “Because I had no insurance, they suspended my license.”

At the time Sewell had a loan on his vehicle. Once he was caught driving without insurance and his license was suspended, the creditors on his car loan required him to buy a certificate of forced insurance.

“It was like slapping a $5,000 fine on top of my loan because I didn’t have insurance,” he said.

Sewell said his insurance more than tripled after the suspension, rising from $79 to roughly $250 a month. He also had to file for a particular state driver certification called an SR-22, one of several financial responsibility certifications required by the Commonwealth if a driver is convicted of certain traffic infractions.

The SR-22 financial responsibility certification Sewell obtained is required if a driver was convicted for unsatisfied judgments, uninsured motor vehicle suspension, failure to provide proof of insurance associated with insurance monitoring, and falsifying insurance certification among several more, according to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles.

“I had no driver’s license,” Sewell said. “I had to pay to have that reinstatement. It’s probably hurt me about 10 to 12 grand. So, I learned my lesson.”

“It was a big change,” he added. “As far as going out and hanging out with my friends. I had to cut it back to Netflix and Bertolli.”

While the state has its share of drivers like Sewell, who can afford to pay the expenses associated with having their license suspended — albeit with certain sacrifices — there are thousands of Virginia drivers who cannot afford to pay even the smallest fines associated with their offense.

Take for instance Kyle Dean, a Hampton resident in his early 20’s who sports a mane of brown hair fit for the cover of a 1970’s rock album. On the morning of Oct. 18, Dean entered the Williamsburg-James City County General District Court to face charges of driving without a license the month before.

“At first I didn’t pay my court fines,” Dean said just outside the courtroom.

On Dec. 28, 2015, Dean rolled through a red light and was stopped by Officer Carlsen of the Williamsburg Police Department, according to court records. Dean was found guilty in absentia on Feb. 1, 2016. He incurred a $50 fine and a court fee of $96 for the offense.

After Dean failed to pay the $146 in fines and fees, his license was suspended, but he continued to drive to work. On Sept. 17, Dean arrived at his workplace and the security alarm was going off. Police arrived on the scene and witnessed Dean driving his vehicle into the parking lot.

Deputies then checked the licenses of all employees before ticketing Dean for driving on a suspended license. Under oath a month later, Dean said he couldn’t afford to pay the court fines and fees associated with the offense.

According to court records, Dean was found guilty of driving on a suspended license on Dec. 29. He was sentenced to two months probation and incurred an additional $101 in court costs, which are due by May. His license will be reinstated after all of his fines and fees are paid.

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

According to the DMV, there are 647,517 Virginians who have lost their privilege to drive only because they failed to pay court fines and fees. The number of Virginians who have lost their privilege to drive due to non-payment of court fines and fees is greater than the entire population of the state of Vermont, according to United States Census Data.

Inconsistent payment plans

Each court operates as an independent body within the greater justice system, and courts are allowed to set their own terms and conditions for payment plans. There are very few limitations between courts. A defendant can set up a payment plan with a General District Court Clerk’s office, and then walk a short distance and be set up in an entirely different plan in the Circuit Court Clerk’s office.

Williamsburg-James City Courthouse (File photo)
Williamsburg-James City Courthouse (File photo)

On March 7, 2016, the General Assembly passed House Bill 572 and gave the court system the power to determine how all payment plans would be set up. The bill stated that individual payment plans should remain consistent with “the Rules of Supreme Court of Virginia” and that such rules “shall be posted in the clerk’s office and on the court’s website, if a website is available.”

After the passage of House Bill 572, the only limitations placed on the payment plan system were to be imposed by the Rules of the Supreme Court of Virginia. 

According to the website for Williamsburg-James City County courts, payment plans for criminal and traffic cases are “authorized by the local court, and each local court adopts its own policy.”

“If a policy is not available for a particular court,” the site reads. “Please contact the clerk of that local court.”

Both General District Courts of Williamsburg-James City County and York-Poquoson offer an installment payment plan to people like Kyle Dean, who can’t pay all of their fines and fees up front.

The plan requires a $10 fee to enter into a payment agreement, according to documents provided by General District Court’s clerk’s office. Defendants have 30 days after their trial to pay in-full or enter a payment plan. Defendants who have already defaulted on prior court costs are ineligible to enter into a payment plan in WJCC General District Court, unless they petition the court for another payment plan and pay a $50 fee, according to WJCC General District Court Clerk Karen Snyder. 

Williamsburg-James City County Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court offers an entirely different payment plan structure. A defendant has 90 days to pay off the fine in full, unless he or she has been making consistent payments throughout that 90-day period. If a defendant has been making consistent payments, the clerk’s office can extend the term of the payments at its own discretion, according to the clerk’s office.

However, according to information provided by the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court Clerk’s Office, a payment plan can only be entered into after non-payment during the 90 day period. The payment plan includes a $50 down payment, followed by monthly payments of $50 until the court fines and fees are paid off.

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)
Raymond 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)

Circuit courts often set their own terms when it comes to offering payment plans. The Williamsburg-James City County Circuit Court offers a payment plan that allows the clerk’s office flexibility in setting the terms for payment. The York-Poquoson Circuit Court’s presiding judge sets the terms for its payment plans on a case by case basis, according to a York-Poquoson Circuit Court clerk.

On June 24, 2013, Jamestown resident Raymond Wright wrote a letter to the WJCC circuit clerk to enter into a payment plan for fees related to a DUI and assault on a law enforcement officer conviction.

His payment plan was accepted by the clerk of the Williamsburg-James City County Circuit Court on July 3, 2013, but according to a letter to the court from his probation officer, Wright defaulted on his plan in January 2015. Wright said he finally paid off his court fines and fees for those convictions in July 2016. He is still paying for his most recent conviction on the charge of driving with a suspended license.

“I’m just trying to get my money together to you know, pay ASAP, pay all my fines, and parts I gotta put on the car, so I can get it registered,” Wright said. “You know, they give you a certain amount of time to do that before they end up shipping you back to court, and it’s gonna be more fines. It makes it hard man. It makes it hard.”

If the defendant in any of these courts does not — or cannot — pay his or her court fines and fees either in full or by payment plan, then the defendant can have his or her wages or tax returns garnished by the Court Debt Collection Office in the Virginia Department of Taxation, according to a Williamsburg-James City County General District Court clerk.

Sade Stevenson, a resident of Newport News, is a repeat offender to area traffic laws. She has been charged with a dozen traffic infractions since 2013. She was most recently found guilty for driving with a revoked or suspended license and sentenced to 365 days in jail with 355 days of her sentence suspended. She said she has been serving time on weekends for some of the charges.

“The most I ever paid to get my license back in Virginia was $1,500,” Stevenson said. “I didn’t have insurance on my vehicle, and when I got pulled over for the first time ever, the cop towed my car. When I went to court, I had driving on a suspended license, no insurance, I had to get my license suspended again for 90 days. I didn’t have the money to pay for it. So, I was driving again, so I got pulled over again, so the stuff on top of that, court fines, was just ridiculous.”

Stevenson said she recently had her license suspended for not paying her court fines.

“It’s just crazy how they charge you so much for the court fines,” she added. “How can you get to work? You can’t drive. Virginia will keep you in a hole.”

Enforcing an inconsistent rule

Fernando Groene, a Williamsburg defense attorney, has argued hundreds of license suspension cases in his 32-year career. He said he has heard of clients taking the bus to court, but the bus runs late and arrest warrants get issued for the clients for not showing up to their hearing.

“It happens all the time,” Groene said. “I’ve actually heard of people driving to court to answer for a driving while suspended charge. That’s the issue. I guess the state tries to enforce it the best they can.”

For those tasked with prosecuting license suspension cases on behalf of the state, the sheer number of cases can be daunting. Williamsburg’s Commonwealth Attorney Nate Green said that one of the most frequent offenses his office sees is driving with a suspended license. The volume is so large he wants to see the law changed.

“I appreciate that driving a car is a privilege and not a right,” Green wrote in an email.  “However, it is my opinion that the loss of that privilege should come as a result of a driver abusing their privilege to drive, not as a means to force compliance with court ordered fines and costs that have nothing to do with a citizen’s resect [sic] and compliance with the rules of the road.”

“I would encourage the legislature to find another way to address the non-payment of fines and costs,” he added. “Rather than suspending the driving licenses of citizens who have shown the proper respect for the privilege to drive.”

On Tuesday, Governor Terry McAuliffe announced a legislative agenda for the 2017 General Assembly session that includes two bills aimed at reducing license suspensions for drivers who have unpaid fines and fees or who have committed non-driving offenses.

“The changes we are proposing today seek to hold offenders responsible for their crimes in a way that maintains opportunities for rehabilitation and future productivity,” McAuliffe said in a release. “I look forward to working with the General Assembly this session to pass these proposals and continue our bipartisan work toward a new Virginia economy that offers every individual a safe community and a shot at a better life.”  

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include links to payment plan documents provided to the public at WJCC and York County courts. It has also been updated to include comment from WJCC General District Court Clerk Karen Snyder, who declined to comment prior to publication, but requested comment be added to the story post-publication.

Correction: This story originally reported that the Virginia Supreme Court had not provided guidance to state courts about payment plans for fines and costs in light of the passage of HB 572. This was incorrect. Virginia Supreme Court Rule 1:24 governing payment plans was adopted Nov. 1, 2016. The rule becomes effective Feb. 1, 2017. Since the rule’s adoption, local courts have been updating their payment plans as needed, according to Kristi S. Wright, the director of legislative and public relations for the office of the executive secretary of the Supreme Court of Virginia.