United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Charlottesville Division
K. MOON, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
of this Opinion explains the standard of review.
II, the Court broadly outlines the allegations in
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).
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.
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.
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
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.
Part VIII notes other jurisdictional issues.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
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).
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.
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
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)).
contend that “DMV is the entity responsible for the
issuance, suspension, and revocation of driver's
licenses.” (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).
licenses, ” they claim, “were suspended by
the Defendant 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).
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. ¶¶
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.
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.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.
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 have uniform cost-and-fee schedules
that do not vary based on the ability to pay. (Id.
¶¶ 268-71; dkts. 1-1 & 1-2).
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
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
“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. (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. ¶¶
The Nature of Plaintiffs' Challenge
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).
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)).
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.”
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 §
(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. 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 ¶
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
TEXT AND MEANING OF VIRGINIA CODE § 46.2-395
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).
challenge the constitutionality of their suspensions under
Va. Code 46.2-395(B), which reads in critical part as
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 . . . and fails or refuses to provide
for immediate payment in full of any [fines or
costs lawfully assessed against him, or
fails to make deferred payments or installment payments as
ordered by the court,  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.
at the moment of conviction in a Virginia criminal case, full
payment of any assessed fines and costs is due
if the defendant does not make immediate payment, his
driver's license is suspended
“forthwith”-meaning immediately or without
delay. 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. 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.)
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.
subsequent portion of the statute, Subsection (C), dovetails
with Subsection (B) and further explains how the statute
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.
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.
(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 ...