NPR Discovers the Dire Effects of Petty Law Enforcement Regarding Drivers Licenses


I wrote back in January 2014 about the often unrecognized serious effects on the lives, particularly on the poor and working poor, of petty law enforcement fines related to how we move otherwise harmlessly through the world. I had a special emphasis on the pile-on effect of fines leading to drivers license suspensions leading to more fines leading to possible arrests.

allie™ / iW / CC BY-NC-ND

In that story I quoted a former Florida public defender Tom Nordlie on the phenomenon:

"In the world of misdemeanor crimes, many offenses come about because people are impulsive, drug-addicted, cruel or avaricious….Most DWLS [driving with license suspended] cases don't happen for any of those reasons. DWLS cases come about because people are poor. Or, at the very least, because they don't manage their money well…DWLS is more strongly linked to economics than any other misdemeanor offense." It frequently occurred because of unpaid tickets, or lack of insurance.

"I had many clients tell me, 'I had to keep working to have a chance to raise the money I needed to fix this situation, and in order to work, I had to drive.' Bam. It's a DWLS charge waiting to happen."

Nordlie went on to point out in my story that most of the DWLSs he dealt with had nothing to do with any demonstrated inability to drive well.

Yesterday NPR presented a good report on the same topic. Excerpts:

A large number of suspensions are for reasons that have nothing to do with unsafe driving.

These reasons include unpaid traffic tickets, falling behind on child support, getting caught with drugs, bouncing checks; or minor juvenile offenses like missing school, using false identification to buy alcohol, or shoplifting.

….. A study in 2013 from the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators raised concerns that police and state and local motor vehicle officials find too much of their time and budget tied up going after people with suspensions for minor lawbreaking that has nothing to do with safe driving.

NPR goes on to report about a hapless woman who found that an unpaid fine from a teen shoplifting charge hobbled her with a two-year license suspension from the day she passed her driving test to be legally eligible to get a license to begin with.

The reasons for the state to deprive someone of the right to move about by our culture's most efficient means are multiplying:

…..state lawmakers added hundreds of reasons that had nothing to do with unsafe driving….at least 18 states will suspend someone's driver's license for failure to pay the fines on nondriving traffic violations. And four states will suspend it for not paying parking tickets. Among the other reasons: school truancy, bouncing a check, not paying college loans, graffiti and littering.

Most people, for understandable reasons having to do with their livelihoods and lives, don't always respect such suspensions, leaving them open to further fines and even arrests. These are among the most common ways America's working and poor classes interact with the government: as a source of unreasonable restrictions on movement in the name of mulcting them of more cash.