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Stinnie v. Holcomb

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

June 28, 2019

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

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          NORMAN K. MOON SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Before the Court is Defendant Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles Commissioner Richard D. Holcomb's (the “Commissioner”) motion to dismiss the case as moot or, in the alternative, to stay the case. (Dkt. 142). The underlying matter is the constitutionality of Virginia Code § 46.2-395 (“§ 46.2-395”), which requires the automatic suspension of drivers' licenses for failure to pay state court fines and costs.

         The Commissioner filed the present motion due to the enactment of Budget Amendment No. 33 (the “Budget Amendment”), which eliminates the suspension of drivers' licenses for failure to pay court fines and costs through July 1, 2020, but does not repeal § 46.2-395. The Commissioner argues that the Budget Amendment renders Plaintiffs' harm so remote as to moot the case, or, alternatively, that it represents the Virginia legislature's commitment to repeal, and thus supports a stay of the matter pending the 2020 session of Virginia's General Assembly. For the reasons discussed below, the Court finds that the Budget Amendment does not moot the case, but does render a stay appropriate.

         I. Background

         A full recitation of the facts surrounding this case can be found in the Court's memorandum opinion granting Plaintiffs' preliminary injunction. Stinnie v. Holcomb, 355 F.Supp.3d 514, 520-23 (W.D. Va. 2018). Relevant here is the case's procedural history and the text and impact of the Budget Amendment.[1] This case was first filed in July 2016 and dismissed without prejudice. (Dkt. 57). The Fourth Circuit dismissed Plaintiffs' appeal for lack of appellate jurisdiction. See Stinnie v. Holcomb, 734 Fed.Appx. 858, 863 (4th Cir. 2018). The Fourth Circuit explained that this Court's “grounds for dismissal [did] not clearly indicate that no amendment in the complaint could cure the defects in the plaintiff's case.” Id. at 861 (internal quotations omitted). Accordingly, on remand, in September 2018, Plaintiffs[2] submitted an amended complaint, alleging that § 46.2-395 “as written and as implemented by the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles (“DMV”) Commissioner . . . is unconstitutional on its face” under the Fourteenth Amendment due process clause “for failing to provide sufficient notice or hearing to any driver before license suspension.” (Dkt. 84 ¶ 5). Plaintiffs also allege § 46.2-395 is unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment equal protection clause “as applied to people who cannot afford to pay due to their modest financial circumstances.” (Id.).

         Plaintiffs moved for a preliminary injunction to: (1) enjoin the Commissioner from enforcing § 46.2-395; (2) remove current suspensions of Plaintiffs' drivers' licenses imposed under § 46.2-395; and (3) enjoin the Commissioner from charging a fee to reinstate licenses for plaintiffs with no other restrictions on their licenses. (Dkt. 88). This Court granted Plaintiffs' preliminary injunction, finding that the Court could properly exercise jurisdiction over the case, and that Plaintiffs were likely to succeed on the merits of their procedural due process claim because the procedures provided by § 46.2-395 “are not sufficient to protect against the erroneous deprivation of the property interest involved.” (Dkt. 126 at 18). Currently pending before the Court is the instant motion to dismiss, (dkt. 142), a motion to dismiss pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12, (dkt. 104), a motion to certify class, (dkt. 85), cross motions for summary judgment, (dkts. 195, 200), and a motion to exclude witnesses, (dkt. 198).

         As to the Budget Amendment, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam proposed the Budget Amendment to “eliminate the suspension of driving privileges for nonpayment of court fines and costs.”[3] In full, the Budget Amendment states:

[N]otwithstanding the provisions of § 46.2-395 of the Code of Virginia, no court shall suspend any person's privilege to drive a motor vehicle solely for failure to pay any fines, court costs, forfeitures, restitution, or penalties assessed against such person. The Commissioner of the Department of Motor Vehicles shall reinstate a person's privilege to drive a motor vehicle that was suspended prior to July 1, 2019, solely pursuant to § 46.2-395 of the Code of Virginia and shall waive all fees relating to reinstating such person's driving privileges. Nothing herein shall require the Commissioner to reinstate a person's driving privileges if such privileges have been otherwise lawfully suspended or revoked or if such person is otherwise ineligible for a driver's license.

         Accompanying the text of the Budget Amendment is an explanation, which provides:

This amendment eliminates the driver's license reinstatement fee transfer to the Trauma Fund and eliminates the loss of driving privileges to individuals who have only failed to pay fines, court costs, forfeitures, restitution or penalties assessed against them. The Department of Motor Vehicles also shall not charge a driver's license reinstatement fee to these individuals. This initiative will help individuals that require a vehicle to gain a job, allowing them to earn money to repay any obligations they owe. This amendment has no impact to the general fund since the impact of its passage was assumed in the introduced and enrolled budgets.

         The Commissioner provided the Court with a sworn declaration stating that “[p]ursuant to Budget Amendment 33, the DMV database will reflect that Va. Code § 46.2-395 suspensions that were inputted before July 1, 2019 have been complied with. Suspensions unrelated to Va. Code § 46.2-395 will remain active on the record.” (Dkt. 170-4, ¶ 7). The Commissioner further states that “[d]rivers who have records of suspension relating to Va. Code § 46.2-395 and suspensions relating to other statutory provisions will have their record relating to their § 46.2-395 suspension reflect that the VA. Code § 46.2-395 suspension has been complied with, but will have to resolve the issues relating to their non-§ 46.2-395-suspensions before their privilege to drive can be reinstated.” (Id. at ¶ 9). The Commissioner reiterated this understanding of the Budget Amendment at oral argument.

         As the Commissioner notes, the General Assembly's support of both the Budget Amendment-which passed by votes of 70 to 29 in the House and 30 to 8 in the Senate- indicates political hostility towards § 46.2-395. (Dkt. 143). While Plaintiffs are correct that one “can only speculate about the possibility of legislative action, ” (dkt. 156), the Commissioner testified that the process of drafting legislation to codify the Budget Amendment has begun. (Dkt. 208-1 at 83).

         II. Legal Standards

         “Under Article III of the Constitution, federal courts may adjudicate only actual, ongoing cases or controversies.” Lewis v. Continental Bank Corp., 494 U.S. 472, 477 (1990) (internal citations omitted). “This case-or-controversy requirement subsists through all stages of federal judicial proceedings, trial and appellate.” Id. (internal citations and quotations omitted). “A case is moot when the issues presented are no longer live or the parties lack a legally cognizable interest in the outcome.” City of Erie v. Pap's A.M., 529 U.S. 277, 287 (2000). “A case is not moot . . . if a party can demonstrate that the ...


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