CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WVIR) - Governor Ralph Northam is filing a budget amendment that would eliminate the suspension of driver's licenses for Virginians with unpaid court fines and costs.

The amendment announced Tuesday, March 26, would also reinstate driving licenses for more than 627,000 drivers who currently have suspended licenses. The governor made his announcement during a visit to Charlottesville’s Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC).

“Economic status and zip code should not be a factor in a person's ability to work and provide for their families. It also should not cause people to become further entangled in our criminal justice system,” Northam said.

Current Virginia law mandates the automatic suspension of licenses for unpaid court debt.

Virginia collects about $10 million a year from people who pay to reinstate their licenses after they've been suspended for unpaid fines and costs.

LAJC has filed a federal lawsuit over the practice, arguing that it unfairly punishes poor people.

“Driver’s license suspension is Virginia's form of debtor’s prison. We have worked with so many people who have been suffering from debilitating court debt,” said LAJC Executive Director Angela Ciolfi.

Supporters of the law say ending the license suspensions would reward criminals. The General Assembly will return April 3 to take up Governor Northam's vetoes and amendments.

The Legal Aid Justice Center said if the amendment is passed, then the lawsuit would effectively be moot.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

03/26/2019 Release from the Office of Governor Ralph Northam:

RICHMOND - Governor Ralph Northam today announced an amendment to the enrolled budget that will eliminate the suspension of driving privileges for nonpayment of court fines and costs. This amendment would also reinstate driving privileges for the more than 627,000 Virginians who currently have their licenses suspended.

“The practice of suspending a person’s driver’s license for nonpayment of court fines and costs is inequitable—it’s past time we end it,” said Governor Northam. “A driver’s license is critical to daily life, including a person’s ability to maintain a job. Eliminating a process that envelops hundreds of thousands of Virginians in a counterproductive cycle is not only fair, it’s also the right thing to do.”

During the 2019 legislative session, Governor Northam proposed Senate Bill 1613, carried by Senator Adam Ebbin, and House Bill 2488, carried by Delegate Alfonso Lopez to address this issue. Governor Northam also included funding in his budget to address potential lost revenue from reinstatement fees to the Department of Motor Vehicles and the Trauma Center Fund. While these bills ultimately failed, the funding remained in the budget.

“When a person’s driver’s license is suspended, they may face a difficult dilemma—obey the suspension and potentially lose their ability to provide for their families, or drive anyway and face further punishment, and even imprisonment, for driving while suspended,” said Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian Moran. “This not only further entangles someone in our criminal justice system, but it also places a greater burden on law enforcement and our criminal justice system to enforce and prosecute these offenses.”

“It is long overdue for Virginia to end this destructive policy, which targets people in poverty and prevents them not only from paying their debts, but also from taking care of their essential basic needs, and the health and welfare of their children and families,” said Senator Bill Stanley. “I want to thank Governor Northam for making my legislation a part of his amendments to the 2019 Virginia budget.”

“Suspending a driver’s license for a non-driving offense is ineffective and has broadly negative consequences for Virginians,” said Senator Adam Ebbin. “Unwarranted license suspension disproportionately impacts the most economically-disadvantaged Virginians without making our communities safer.”

“Many Virginia residents rely upon their driver’s licenses to get to work and complete other necessary daily tasks,” said Delegate Alfonso Lopez. “Taking away someone’s driver’s license can be devastating for a family’s economic security—to do this to people who have already demonstrated an inability to pay court fees and fines is cruel and counterproductive. After working on this issue for years, I’m very happy that this action to try and eliminate this practice in the commonwealth is being taken today.”

“Fundamentally, this practice of suspending one’s driver’s license without knowing their ability to pay and undermining the ability to potentially pay court costs in the future is cruel; and, it may even be unconstitutional,” said Delegate Cliff Hayes. “Virginia knows better than to have such a practice. It’s time that we do better.”