On The Front Lines
Victory: Court Discourages Constitutional Mischief by the Government, Holds DMV Fiscally Accountable for Constitutional Violations
RICHMOND, Va. — In a 7-4 en banc ruling in Stinnie v. Holcomb, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals has agreed that the government should not be able to sidestep accountability and avoid paying plaintiffs’ attorneys’ fees when it has violated the Constitution.
Stinnie v. Holcomb challenged a state law that penalizes drivers for failing to pay court fines and costs which often have nothing to do with road safety or driving infractions. Because the Commonwealth of Virginia enacted legislation blocking the DMV from suspending licenses over outstanding fines and fees before the case could be fully resolved in court, the DMV insisted it could not be required to pay the plaintiffs’ attorneys for their time working on the case. However, a legal coalition including The Rutherford Institute warned that allowing the DMV to avoid fiscal accountability would encourage further constitutional mischief by the government. The Fourth Circuit agreed, acknowledging that failing to hold the government fiscally accountable could give rise to a scenario in which government defendants attempt “to game the system” in seeking to outlast a poor plaintiff’s financial resources.
“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 which often have nothing to do with road safety or driving infractions. In July 2016, a lawsuit was filed against the DMV, alleging that the automatic suspensions violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantees of due process and equal protection. The lawsuit alleged that “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.” For instance, one of the plaintiffs was a 24-year-old man with lymphoma who became homeless after failing to pay about $1,000 in traffic fines.
In December 2018, a federal district court granted a request for a preliminary injunction to temporarily end the “unconstitutional scheme” by prohibiting the DMV from suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid court costs. Before the case could be fully resolved by the court, the Commonwealth of Virginia enacted legislation which blocked the DMV from suspending licenses over outstanding fines and fees, thereby mooting the case. Attempting to avoid any legal consequences for its constitutional violations, the DMV insisted that since the issue was resolved through legislation rather than a final court-ruling against the DMV, the government could not be required to pay the plaintiffs’ attorneys for their time working on the case. The Fourth Circuit ruled against the government, holding that plaintiffs’ attorneys are eligible to recover reasonable fees from the government for litigating the case.
Theodore A. Howard of Wiley Rein LLP advanced the arguments in the brief.
The Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil liberties organization, provides legal assistance at no charge to individuals whose constitutional rights have been threatened or violated, and educates the public on a wide spectrum of issues affecting their freedoms.