Government can't escape lawsuit liability with trick, law firm argues


Lawyers for the Rutherford Institute are arguing in court that a state government can’t escape liability for the fees for a lawsuit over a failing just by a trick – quickly abandoning the damaging law while a lawsuit is pending.

The institute explained it is challenging an attempt by the state of Virginia to “sidestep accountability” and avoid paying legal fees in a case charging it violated the Constitution.

The case was a 2016 lawsuit, Stinnie v. Holcomb, that sought to halt the state’s process of automatically suspending driver’s licenses over unpaid court fines and fees.

The Department of Justice called the process unlawful and said it punishes poverty at every stage of the justice system.

Rutherford, and others, filed friend-of-the-court briefs in the dispute.

It was in December 2018 that a federal district court granted the plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary injunction to temporarily end the “unconstitutional scheme” by prohibiting the DMV from suspending offenders’ licenses.

“However, before the case could be fully resolved by the court, the Commonwealth of Virginia enacted legislation in 2020 that blocked the DMV from suspending licenses over outstanding fines and fees, thereby mooting the case,” the institute explained.

“Attempting to avoid any legal consequences for its constitutional violations, the DMV has insisted that since the issue was resolved through legislation before it could be finally resolved by the court, the government should not be required to pay the plaintiffs’ attorneys for their time working on the case.”

“If the government is allowed to avoid the financial liabilities associated with violating the Constitution, it will violate the Constitution for as long as it can get away with it,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “Such a practice cripples the ability of the citizenry, especially the poor and vulnerable, to effectively seek protection from the courts and hold the government accountable.”

Damian Stinnie was among more than 900,000 people who had their driver’s licenses automatically suspended by the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) under a state law that penalizes drivers for failing to pay court fines and costs that often have nothing to do with road safety or driving infractions.

The class action lawsuit in 2016 charged that violated the 14th Amendment’s guarantees of due process and equal protection. It charged “hundreds of thousands of people have lost their licenses simply because they are too poor to pay, effectively depriving them of reliable, lawful transportation necessary to get to and from work, take children to school, keep medical appointments, care for ill or disabled family members, or, paradoxically, to meet their financial obligations to the courts.”

In one case, a a 24-year-old man with lymphoma became homeless after failing to pay about $1,000 in traffic fines. Another woman, the mother of three children, was stymied in her attempts to get and keep a job after having her license suspended for $865 in court costs.

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