Virginia driver's license

A sample Virginia driver’s license for drivers under age 21.

The Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles is sending out letters to residents with suspended driver's licenses solely because of unpaid court debt to let them know how to have their driving privileges restored.

Secretary of Transportation Shannon Valentine said more than 500,000 letters are going out advising Virginians with suspended licenses on any requirements to meet before they can drive again. On July 1, Virginians who had their licenses suspended because they didn't promptly pay their court debt will have their driving privileges restored and the reinstatement fee waived.

Gov. Ralph Northam signed a budget amendment earlier this year that temporarily stopped the practice of suspending driver's licenses for unpaid court fines and fees. Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin, had been pushing for legislation to repeal the law, and he worked with Northam on the budget amendment.

Northam called the practice "counterproductive." Advocates of ending the practice say it disproportionately affects poor people and those in rural areas where there’s a lack of reliable public transportation to travel to work. When people risk driving and get caught, they face additional charges and jail time. They get buried in court debt.

“This is a significant step in the right direction toward getting Virginians back to work and enabling them to support their families," Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian Moran said in a statement. 

The change only affects a person’s ability to get his or her driver’s license. It does not eliminate the requirement to pay the court costs and fines.

Residents who still have their physical, unexpired license can start driving again July 1 without going to the DMV. Those with expired licenses and other unmet requirements will receive that information in the letters. The change does not address non-payment of tolls or eliminate any suspensions or requirements for failure to pay child support, driving on a suspended license or judgments or other reasons unrelated to fines and costs suspensions. 

The DMV advises people who are affected by this to go to to make sure their mailing address is on file.

Because the change in the policy was done through the biennial budget, lawmakers will have to return to Richmond in January and find a permanent solution. If the General Assembly fails to do so, drivers with unpaid court fines and fees will have their licenses suspended again in July 2020. Or Northam could use the budget again to continue to halt the practice.

The Legal Aid Justice Center and law firm McGuireWoods filed a lawsuit in 2016 seeking to end the practice. The trial is scheduled for August, and the decision could determine whether the practice ends for good.  Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring and the DMV are seeking to have the class action lawsuit tossed out or delayed because of the action taken by the governor and General Assembly.

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