Dumfries resident Donna Shaheed’s driver’s license was suspended 16 years ago. This summer, she got it back.
“I can drive legally now to my kid’s doctor’s appointments,” she said. “Even to the grocery store. I can go do things, take my kids to the park, anywhere. It’s a whole lot less anxiety on me.”
Shaheed said she was surprised when she heard about the law that went into effect July 1 that reinstates driver’s licenses for those who had their license suspended due to unpaid court fines.
Before July 1, 238,847 Virginians had a suspended driver’s license solely due to unpaid fines and costs, said Matthew Butner, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles. An additional 295,234 people had suspended licenses due to unpaid fines and costs, as well as additional reasons.
Of those, 34,545 people have had their licenses reinstated since July 1, he said. About 90% of those reinstated had been suspended solely for unpaid fines and costs.
As of December 2018, 17,330 people in Prince William County, Manassas and Manassas Park had their license suspended solely due to unpaid fines and costs, Butner said. The DMV did not provide the number of driver’s licenses that were reinstated locally since July 1.
After serving nine months in jail in 2001, Shaheed was ordered to pay restitution of $2,000 and court fines. As an 18-year-old mom at the time, paying the fines was out of reach.
“I struggled for years and years to even buy diapers and food for my children,” she said. “Even with food stamps, I was barely getting by, so I didn’t have any money to put toward court fines or anything extra.”
Since then, Shaheed was convicted of driving with a suspended license.
“Now that the law passed, I don’t have to worry about that anymore,” she said.
With interest accruing, Shaheed is still making payments to the court on her original case from 2001, she said.
Shaheed said having her license back also means she can find a job that requires a license and pays more than her current job.
Before her driver’s license was reinstated, Shaheed couldn’t help her daughter learn to drive.
“That messed me up, because I wasn’t there to help her,” she said. “All of that stuff that moms are supposed to do, I couldn’t do because I didn’t have a license.”
In his budget as approved by the General Assembly earlier this year, Gov. Ralph Northam stipulated that courts cannot suspend driver’s licenses solely due to unpaid court costs and fines, but people still have to repay their fines.
The budget amendment is temporary and will be in effect until July, 1, 2020, Butner said. “Any permanent action is up to the next General Assembly session,” he said.
Manassas resident Barbara Barrick had her license reinstated this year after it was suspended in 2007.
Barrick didn’t expect to drive anytime soon, because she still owes thousands of dollars in court fines and costs. She rode her bike to get around.
“I couldn’t go far,” she said. “I couldn’t leave Manassas. Riding about 10 miles a day, I did it, because when you’re trying to restart your life and try not to get in trouble again, you just do what you have to do.”
While riding one day, she was hit by a car and broke her leg.
“It was rough after I couldn’t ride my bike, because I was really trapped,” she said.
Barrick turned to riding the bus or asking friends for rides.
“It made it so hard to get groceries, just to get to church, just to do anything,” she said. “It was a huge stumbling block everywhere you went. It was so stacked up against you just to get to work or the store or to the doctor.”
Barrick said trying to pay back the fines was a horrible cycle, because she didn’t earn enough to pay her rent and the court fines.
“It’s hard to feel good about yourself when you can’t even go to the grocery store by yourself,” she said. “Even the bus adds up; it was 50 bucks a month when you’re marginally making it. So taking people’s right to drive, because they go into trouble and owe fines, it was so counterproductive, because it perpetuates your feeling of worthlessness and your ability to get away from that feeling of worthlessness.”
Barrick said getting her license back has changed her life. A friend from church drove her to the DMV office to get her license reinstated. Another church friend donated a car to her.
“It’s an old 2001 Jeep with 250,000 miles on it; it’s beautiful to me,” she said. “When I got my license at the DMV, I walked out of there in tears, because it’s just something that I never would have thought would happen.”