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Stinnie v. Holcomb

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Charlottesville Division

March 13, 2017

Damian Stinnie, ET AL., Plaintiffs,
Richard D. Holcomb, in his official capacity as Commissioner of the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, Defendant.



         Damian Stinnie owes fees, fines, and costs to Virginia's courts. He cannot pay them, so Virginia law requires that his driver's license be suspended until he pays. But the suspension makes it difficult to get and keep a job. In other words, because he cannot pay the fees, his license is suspended, but because his license is suspended, he cannot pay the fees. Caught in this cycle, Stinnie and others have sued the Commissioner of Virginia's Department of Motor Vehicles (“DMV”). They argue that the Commissioner suspended their licenses and that those suspensions violated their federal constitutional rights to due process and equal protection.

         Because jurisdiction is absent from the current iteration of this lawsuit, the Constitution prevents this Court from ruling on the substance of Plaintiffs' due process and equal protection challenges, however meritorious they may prove to be when decided in a proper forum.

         First, Congress and the Constitution have not granted federal district courts the authority to hear appeals from state courts. The U.S. Supreme Court is the only federal court authorized to do so. Because this case involves allegedly unconstitutional suspension orders of Virginia state courts, Plaintiffs must seek relief from Virginia's appellate courts and ultimately the U.S. Supreme Court, not this Court.

         Second, the Constitution empowers a federal court to hear a case only if the court could fix the harm plaintiffs allegedly suffered at the hands of the defendant. Here, because the state courts (not the Commissioner) suspended the licenses, the complained-of injury is not fairly traceable to the Commissioner and cannot be fixed by a court order against him.

         Third, the Constitution's Eleventh Amendment forbids certain kinds of lawsuits in federal court against States. The Supreme Court has recognized, however, that the Eleventh Amendment does not prohibit lawsuits seeking to stop a state official from violating federal law. But this exception applies only when the state official has a special relationship to the supposedly unlawful conduct. Because that special relationship is absent here, the exception is inapplicable, and the Eleventh Amendment bars the case against the Commissioner.

         This Court reiterates it is not deciding whether Virginia's license suspension scheme is unconstitutional. All this Court is deciding (indeed, all it has the legal authority to decide) is that it lacks the lawful ability to rule on the merits of Plaintiffs' challenge, at least as this lawsuit is currently constituted. Thus, the Commissioner's motion to dismiss will be granted.


         Part I of this Opinion explains the standard of review.

         In Part II, the Court broadly outlines the allegations in Plaintiffs' Complaint.

         Part III discusses the exact nature of Plaintiffs' constitutional challenge. Plaintiffs make clear that they challenge their license suspensions issued (in their view) by the Commissioner pursuant to Va. Code § 46.2-395(B).

         Next, Part IV analyzes the text, structure, and meaning of § 46.2-395. This analysis reveals that a suspension under § 46.2-395 is done by the state court, not the Commissioner, for failure to pay court costs and fines.

         Part V explains that this case is barred from federal district court by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. Generally speaking, that doctrine holds that federal courts (other than the Supreme Court) cannot hear challenges to state court orders, like those at issue here.

         In Part VI, the Court concludes that Plaintiffs lack constitutional standing in this case to challenge their suspensions. The harm they complain of (unconstitutional license suspensions) was not caused by the Commissioner. Ordering the Commissioner to “reinstate” the licenses would neither be related to the constitutional violation nor remedy the underlying suspensions.

         Part VII finds that the Commissioner is not sufficiently responsible for and associated with the suspensions, and as such he is entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity.

         Finally, Part VIII notes other jurisdictional issues.


         The Commissioner argues that the Complaint fails to allege a claim for relief. Under the associated standard, the Court assumes the truth of the Complaint's factual allegations and draws reasonable inferences in Plaintiffs' favor, but it does not adhere to the Complaint's legal conclusions, unadorned labels, conclusory statements, and formulaic recitation of the elements. See Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678, 680-81 (2009). The Court may consider attachments to the Complaint. Leichling v. Honeywell Int'l, Inc., 842 F.3d 848, 851 (4th Cir. 2016).

         The Commissioner, though, also seeks dismissal for lack of jurisdiction. He does not specify whether he mounts a “facial” challenge to the Complaint or a “factual” one based on additional evidence. As his only submissions were judicially noticeable state court orders (dkts. 10-1, 30-1) and the parties did not seek an evidentiary hearing, the Court concludes it is a facial one. See 24th Senatorial Dist. Republican Comm. v. Alcorn, 820 F.3d 624, 629 (4th Cir. 2016) (distinguishing facial from factual challenges to jurisdiction). Accordingly, the Court applies the familiar Twombly/Iqbal standard, taking care not to accord the “presumption of truth to conclusory statements and legal conclusions contained in [the] complaint.” Beck v. McDonald, No. 15-1395, ___ F.3d ___, 2017 WL 477781, at *4 (4th Cir. Feb. 6, 2017). Importantly, this rule applies even when legal conclusions are couched as factual allegations. Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986); SD3, LLC v. Black & Decker, Inc., 801 F.3d 412, 422 (4th Cir. 2015).[1]


         A. The Plaintiffs

         Plaintiffs Damian Stinnie, Demetrice Moore, Robert Taylor, and Neil Russo are indigent Virginians who have suspended driver's licenses “for failure to pay court costs and fines that they could not afford.” (Complaint ¶ 1). They allege that their suspensions were “automatic and mandatory upon default.” (Id. ¶ 4). They request declaratory and injunctive relief against the Commissioner to:

address and remedy the systemic, pervasive, and ongoing failure of the Commonwealth to provide basic protections afforded by the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the United States Constitution before taking the harsh enforcement measure of suspending driver's licenses against indigent people whose poverty prevents them from paying debts owed to courts.

(Id. ¶ 6). Plaintiffs “seek to represent a class consisting of all persons whose Virginia's driver's licenses are suspended due to unpaid court debt and who, at the time of the suspension, were not able to pay due to their financial circumstances.” (Id. ¶ 373 (emphasis added)).

         They contend that “DMV is the entity responsible for the issuance, suspension, and revocation of driver's licenses.”[2] (Complaint ¶ 22). A driver's license is critical for life functions such as employment, education, and family care. (Id. ¶¶ 30-31). In recent years, hundreds of thousands of Virginians allegedly have had their licenses suspended for failure to pay court costs and fines. (Id. ¶¶ 32-33). Such suspensions “can trap the poor in an impossible situation: inability to reinstate their licenses without gainful employment, yet inability to work without a license.” (Id. ¶ 34).

         “Plaintiffs' licenses, ” they claim, “were suspended by the Defendant[3] immediately upon their default, without any inquiry into their individual financial circumstances, or the reasons underlying their failure to pay.” (Complaint ¶ 39 (emphasis added)). They cannot enter into repayment installment plans, either because the state courts to which they own money do not have such plans or because they cannot afford the plans that are offered. (Id. ¶ 41).

         Mr. Stinnie is the lead named plaintiff. He received four traffic citations in late 2012 or early 2013, three of which resulted in conviction and over $1, 000 in fines and court costs. (Complaint ¶¶ 53-54, 57, 61). Earning only $300 per week, he was unable to pay off this debt, leading-according to him-the Commissioner to suspend his license on May 20, 2013, without assessing whether he had the ability to pay. (Id. ¶¶ 61-67). Stinnie was cited seven days later for driving on a suspended license. (See id. ¶ 68; Va. Code § 46.2-301). He was convicted of this offense on September 19, 2013, while still hospitalized for lymphoma. (Complaint ¶ 73). He incurred additional fines and court costs for that conviction, further hampering his financial situation, as did medical treatments he needed to fight lymphoma. (Id. ¶¶ 68-78).

         This cycle repeated itself in 2016 when-after battling poor health, homelessness, and a dire financial situation-he received more fines and costs for reckless driving and driving on a suspended license. (Complaint ¶¶ 89-99). As of July 2016, Stinnie owed $1, 531 in costs and fines to various state courts. (Id. ¶¶ 111-18). He cannot afford to pay this amount given his limited income and payments for his car, which doubles as shelter when he cannot procure housing. (See id. ¶¶ 105-10).

         As for Plaintiffs Moore, Taylor, and Russo, their particular circumstances differ somewhat from Stinnie (e.g., their underlying charges of conviction, the severity of their indigency and causes thereof), but the basic pattern is the same. All were convicted of some traffic violation or crime, thus incurring court costs, fees, and fines they could not afford to pay.[4]Their licenses were suspended as a result, frustrating their ability to provide for themselves and creating a risk of additional convictions if they drove in an effort to do so. (See Complaint ¶ 341). Additional convictions (for driving suspended or other infractions) followed, compounding their financial situation and providing further bases for suspension.

         B. The Alleged “License-for-Payment Scheme”[5]

         Under Virginia law, a judge in a criminal case resulting in conviction notifies the clerk of the costs incident to the proceeding. Complaint ¶ 259; Va. Code § 19.2-335. The clerk then aggregates this information into a statement; the total is considered both a criminal fine and a judgment in favor of the Commonwealth. Id. ¶¶ 259 (citing Va. Code § 19.2-336), 272-73 (citing Va. Code §§ 17.1-375.5, 19.2-336). Interest begins to accrue on the 41st day after the final judgment. (Id. ¶ 280; Va. Code § 19.2-353.5). Particular kinds of costs and fees may be assessed depending on the nature of the case. (Complaint ¶¶ 261-64). However, Virginia's general district and circuit courts[6] have uniform cost-and-fee schedules that do not vary based on the ability to pay. (Id. ¶¶ 268-71; dkts. 1-1 & 1-2).

         At trial (or by mail to those convicted in absentia), the general district and circuit courts provide defendants with forms (Form DC-210 in the general district court and Form CC-1379 in the circuit court, hereinafter “Suspension Forms”) explaining that nonpayment of costs or fines results in a suspended license; these Suspension Forms-which are attached to and referenced in the Complaint-do not mention the ability to pay. (Complaint ¶¶ 275, 277-78; see dkts. 1-3 & 1-4). Significantly, both Suspension Forms indicate that the defendant:

can avoid this suspension [of his driver's license] going into effect only if the court actually receives payment in full . . . by the effective date of this suspension . . . . If payment in full is not received by the Court within 30 days of sentencing, the suspension goes into effect . . . .

(Dkt. 1-3 at ECF 3, Part I; dkt. 1-4 at ECF 3, Part I (emphasis added)).

         If “immediate payment” is not received, the person's driver's license is suspended “automatically, ” without any inquiry into the reasons for default. (Complaint ¶¶ 284-85 (citing Va. Code § 46.2-395)). According to Plaintiffs, the Commissioner suspends the licenses.[7] (Id. ¶¶ 66, 103, 129, 152, 174, 179, 227). Through administrative channels, the suspension is communicated to the DMV, where an employee makes a data entry concerning it. (See id. ¶¶ 286-89, 294). Individuals who cannot pay their costs or fines within 30 days may make alternative payment arrangements with the state court to toll the effectiveness of their suspensions; the contours of these payment plans, however, vary and are not available in all of Virginia's trial courts. (See id. ¶¶ 296, 302-19).

         III. The Nature of Plaintiffs' Challenge

         The Complaint is often critical of Virginia's courts' failure to consider Plaintiffs' indigency or ability to pay fines and costs. (Complaint ¶¶ 62, 64, 75, 99, 125, 138, 171, 204, 226). Plaintiffs also oppose Virginia's overall legal structures and procedures for assessing court costs, suspending licenses, communicating the suspensions, and reinstating licenses: They bundle these aspects together and label them collectively as a “payment-for-license scheme” or “system, ” or an “unlawful court debt collection scheme” or “system.” (See id. ¶¶ 259-320, 335, 341, 372, 403, 405-06, 412, 416, 422, 427-28, 432, 440, 445-46, 449).

         The true gravamen of the Complaint, though, is the suspension of Plaintiffs' licenses, which Plaintiffs repeatedly assert was done by the Commissioner without notice or consideration of their ability to pay. (Complaint ¶¶ 39, 66, 67, 103, 129-30, 152-53, 174-75, 179-80, 227-28, 251, 370, 412; see dkt. 21 (hereinafter Pls' Br.) at 11 (“the gravamen of Plaintiffs' Complaint [is] Va. Code § 46.2-395's automatic suspension of driver's licenses”). Thus, Plaintiffs ask the Court “to enjoin the [Commissioner] from issuing orders of driver's license suspension against the Plaintiffs and the Class Members, ” and to declare “that the [Commissioner's] policies, practices, acts, and/or omissions as described herein” are unlawful. (Id. ¶¶ 374, Prayer for Relief (c); see also id. Prayer for Relief (d), (e)).

         While these requests are somewhat broad (given the number and scope of the “policies, practices, and acts” the Complaint recounts), Plaintiffs have specified what this case boils down to and what they challenge as unconstitutional: Virginia Code § 46.2-395, entitled “Suspension of license for failure or refusal to pay fines or costs.” Specifically, they:

seek injunctive and declaratory relief against Defendant Richard D. Holcomb in his official capacity for his actions in suspending their licenses pursuant to Va. Code § 46.2-395(B).

(Pls' Br. at 7 (emphasis added); see id. at 11, 22, 24-25, 29-30, 42-43; dkt. 55 (Hr'g Tr.) at 24 (Plaintiffs' counsel: “This is about the driver's licenses.”), 49-50 (“Plaintiffs are challenging an unconstitutional statute, ” § 46.2-395). Plaintiffs emphasize this repeatedly.[8] And the Class they seek to represent is comprised of individuals who both (A) have suspended licenses for nonpayment of court costs and (B) could not pay their costs at the time of suspension. (Complaint ¶ 373).

         Plaintiffs maintain they “are simply asking this Court to order Defendant to stop engaging in an unconstitutional practice-the automatic suspension of driver's licenses without notice, without a hearing, and without regard for inability to pay.” (Pls' Br. at 3). They “simply ask that Defendant cease suspending driver's licenses” and reinstate their own. (Id. at 15). But an examination of Va. Code § 46.2-395 reveals the matter is not as simple as Plaintiffs contend.


         The foundational principle of statutory interpretation is that the examination of a law must begin with its text. See United States v. Neuhauser, 745 F.3d 125, 128 (4th Cir. 2014). The analysis often concludes there too: “When the text of the statute is clear, our interpretive inquiry ends.” Fogerty v. Fantasy, Inc., 510 U.S. 517, 538 (1994); e.g., Octane Fitness, LLC v. ICON Health & Fitness, Inc., 134 S.Ct. 1749, 1755 (2014). The Court applies the “fundamental canon of statutory construction that words will be interpreted as taking their ordinary, contemporary, common meaning.” United States v. Serafini, 826 F.3d 146, 149 (4th Cir. 2016).

         A. The Framework

         1. Subsection (B)

         Plaintiffs challenge the constitutionality of their suspensions under Va. Code 46.2-395(B), which reads in critical part as follows:

In addition to any penalty provided by law and subject to the limitations on collection under §§ 19.2-340 and 19.2-341, when any person is convicted of any violation of the law of the Commonwealth . . .[9] and fails or refuses to provide for immediate payment in full of any [fines or costs[10] lawfully assessed against him, or fails to make deferred payments or installment payments as ordered by the court, [11] the court shall forthwith suspend the person's privilege to drive a motor vehicle on the highways in the Commonwealth. The driver's license of the person shall continue suspended until the [fines or costs] ha[ve] been paid in full. However, if the defendant, after having his license suspended, pays the reinstatement fee to the [DMV] and enters into an agreement under § 19.2-354 that is acceptable to the court to make deferred payments or installment payments of unpaid [fines or costs] as ordered by the court, the defendant's driver's license shall thereby be restored . . . . (boldface and italicized emphasis added). Several points about this passage merit attention.

         First, at the moment of conviction in a Virginia criminal case, full payment of any assessed fines and costs is due “immediate[ly].”

         Second, if the defendant does not make immediate payment, his driver's license is suspended “forthwith”-meaning immediately or without delay.[12] Plaintiffs acknowledge that the suspension is “automatic” and “immediate” upon nonpayment. (See Complaint ¶¶ 284-85; Pls' Br. at 2, 4, 10). Every conviction involving a fine or costs thus effectively includes the suspension of the person's license (see Suspension Forms), although in many instances the defendant may make payment shortly thereafter.[13] In other words, the suspension may be brief, but it continues “until the fines, costs, forfeiture, restitution, or penalty has been paid in full.” (As discussed shortly, however, the effective date of the suspension is difference from the date of the suspension itself.)

         Third and critically, the suspension is unequivocally and unambiguously ordered by the court. As the statute plainly says: “the court shall forthwith suspend the person's privilege to drive a motor vehicle.” Va. Code § 46.2-395(B) (emphasis added); see Pls' Br. at 4 n.2 (“it is the court that issues the order of suspension . . .”). This cuts to the heart of Plaintiffs' case, which rests on their licenses being suspended by the Commissioner.

         2. Subsection (C)

         The subsequent portion of the statute, Subsection (C), dovetails with Subsection (B) and further explains how the statute operates.

Before transmitting to the Commissioner a record of the person's failure or refusal to pay all or part of any [fines or costs] or a failure to comply with an order issued pursuant to § 19.2-354, the clerk of the court that convicted the person shall provide or cause to be sent to the person written notice of the suspension . . ., [which is] effective 30 days from the date of conviction, if the [fine or cost] is not paid prior to the effective date of the suspension as stated on the notice.

Notice shall be provided to the person at the time of trial or shall be mailed by first-class mail to the address certified on the summons or bail recognizance document as the person's current mailing address, or to such mailing address as the person has subsequently provided to the court as a change of address. If so mailed on the date of conviction or within five business days thereof, or if delivered to the person at the time of trial, such notice shall be adequate notice of the license suspension and of the person's ability to avoid suspension by paying the [fines or costs] prior to the effective date. No other notice shall be required to make the suspension effective. A record of the person's failure or refusal and of the license suspension shall be sent to the Commissioner if the [fine or cost] remains unpaid on the effective date of the suspension specified in the notice or on the failure to make a scheduled payment.

         Va. Code § 46.2-395(C) (boldface and italicized emphasis added). This provision distinguishes several concepts, including: the suspension itself; the effective date of the suspension; and a “record” of nonpayment.

         Subsection (C) requires the court clerk to provide the person with “notice of the suspension” made by the court pursuant to Subsection (B). But Subsection (C) also makes clear that the suspension is not “effective [until] 30 days from the date of conviction.” If the fines and costs are paid during this 30-day grace ...

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