Police

Driver's License Suspensions, Ruining the Disadvantaged's Lives

Taking away people's ability to travel by car over fines and fees is unreasonably destructive.

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The matter of how petty fines can lead to license suspensions (and court dates, then court costs and bigger fines, and other problems) and a world of crippling trouble for the poor and disadvantaged is a hobbyhorse I've been riding since January 2014, including writings in February 2014May 2014December 2014.

allie™ / iW / CC BY-NC-ND

Today the New York Times explores the topic:

Going through the legal system, even for people charged with nonviolent misdemeanors, can be expensive, with fines, public defender fees, probation fees and other costs running into hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars. Many people cannot pay

As a result, some states have begun suspending driver's licenses for unsatisfied debts stemming from any criminal case, from misdemeanors like marijuana possession to felonies in which court costs can reach into the tens of thousands of dollars. In Tennessee, almost 90,000 driver's licenses have been suspended since its law was enacted in 2011.

That so many of these suspensions have zero to do with any demonstrated inability to safely operate a motor vehicle is especially heinous.

The Times goes on to report vividly how it messes up a normal life:

Many drivers who have lost their licenses in Tennessee, too poor to pay what they owe and living in places with limited public transportation, have done what Mr. [Kenneth] Seay did. They have driven anyway….

Each time Mr. Seay was caught, he racked up new fines and fees on top of the old. As a repeat offender, he would often be jailed, causing him to lose his job, and placed on probation, which carries an additional fee of $40 a month. More recently, he has been jailed for violating probation because he fell behind on those payments. Except for odd jobs, he has been unemployed for about a year, partly because he finally swore off driving.

"If I could get my license back, that would be the most wonderful thing that happened to me in my life," Mr. Seay, 44, said.

Last February I wrote of this topic that:

As I wrote in my piece, it's a steady pattern of severe damage to the lives of the least well off in America that strangely gets little attention from most poverty activists and academics, perhaps because the solution is for the state to do less rather than do more.

Since then, with both NPR and the New York Times discovering this frequent injustice, the level of attention is happily rising. May action on the part of localities toward justice follow. The Times reports some hope already in the works I had been unaware of:

in recent years, a few states have reconsidered the policy amid concerns that it hurts low-income residents without achieving its intended goals. In 2013, Washington stopped suspending licenses for failure to pay nonmoving violations like expired registrations. Suspensions dropped by half, said Brad Benfield, a spokesman for the Washington State Department of Licensing, and each month, there have been 500 fewer arrests for driving while suspended, saving an estimated 4,500 hours of patrol officers' time.And this month, a California lawmaker introduced a bill that would make it easier for people to reinstate their licenses, after a report said that four million California licenses had been suspended for failure to pay or failure to appear in court.

"For many families, a driver's license suspension is the beginning of a descent into abject poverty for which there is no escape," the proposed law says.

Such suspensions certainly do, and should never be policy for anything other then firm proof of complete, recidivist unfitness to drive.

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  1. Freedom to travel might seem like a perfectly cromulent unenumerated right, but what with the TSA no-fly list, the 100 mile wide constitution-free border zone and its random checks, and license suspensions, it sure seems to have been lost in the haze.

    1. At the current angle of descent it won’t be long before we’ll all be required to wear tracking devices to make certain we stay within our designated legal physical occupation zones.

      1. Very possible, luckily

        My uncle owns a country place
        that no one knows about
        he says it used to be a farm
        before the motor laws.

        1. Well, watch out for the air cars.

        2. I think I heard about that country place- lots of trees. But I heard that there’s unrest in that forest. There is trouble with the trees. For the maples want more sunlight and the greedy capitalist oaks ignore their pleas

    2. Anything that is unenumerated is considered a privilege, not a right, and can be restricted or revoked at any time for any reason. This is where our current jurisprudence has brought us to.

      1. “Well, if it were a right, they would have put it in the Constitution….duh.”

        1. Where it would be as immune to tampering as the 2nd or 4th.

  2. public defender fees

    If you cannot afford an attorney…

    1. If you cannot afford an attorney you will be billed for one amd incarcerated for failure to pay

  3. “Suspensions dropped by half, said Brad Benfield, a spokesman for the Washington State Department of Licensing, and each month, there have been 500 fewer arrests for driving while suspended, saving an estimated 4,500 hours of patrol officers’ time.”

    So the cops have less to do, but at least they’ll keep their previous salaries and pensions.

    They’re happy as pigs in clover. Oops, I used the p-word.

  4. I have mixed feelings about some of this. I generally agree that we have an overly regulated system of complicated rules which lead to a spiral of petty fees and infractions that when added up, and be debilitating for the poor.

    But at the same time, this is something that came up in my city clear back in the 90s and in many cases, the ugly, racist word “agency” kept rearing its head. Not speaking to any of the cases detailed above, there was a case of a young woman here who had something like 200 parking tickets. Not the penalties and fines that were racked up on the unpaid tickets, but just the tickets themselves. The city let her off because, being a minority woman, the parking tickets were seen as racist. Almost as if the meter maid felt from the hood of the car she laid the summons envelope on that the owner was a person of color, and therefore was more deserving of the ticket.

    I don’t know what the answer is– but at some point, if you keep parking illegally, there are going to be consequences.

    1. When a city has 10 times as many warrants as population, it doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to see the system is corrupt. That trumps your anecdote by a wide margin.

      1. . In 2013, Washington stopped suspending licenses for failure to pay nonmoving violations like expired registrations.

        Such suspensions certainly do, and should never be policy for anything other then firm proof of complete, recidivist unfitness to drive.

        Which is a bit funny, because in the State of Washington, they repeatedly hammer it into you that driving is a privilege not a right. Therefore, traditionally, all manner of things could get you a suspended license… things that had nothing to do with fitness to operate a motor vehicle.

        1. I think public roads have led to the greatest erosion of rights. Most cases that stretch the 5th Amendment to absurd limits deal with it. The pervasiveness of cops across the country needed to patrol them. Highway patrols. The ability of the Feds to impose upon the states or threaten to cut funding. I’m sure there’s a long list of things I’m not even aware of or don’t have time to mention. The vast majority of interactions people have with law enforcement all stem from the roadz.

          1. Public roads and the drug war, which has been used as the excuse to do the most damage would be a tough call.

          2. So you want the US TO BE SOMALIA THEN!!!??!!!

            /tarded

        2. Also, driving on a suspended/expired license is a felony in WA. At least it was about ten years ago, when a buddy of mine found out the hard way.

    2. The city let her off because, being a minority woman, the parking tickets were seen as racist.

      WTF? What city was this?

  5. Rules? We don’t need any rules right? Now excuse me I’m going to park on a curb and than drive 90 though a school zone. New game – dodge car!

    1. You simply will get a Darwin Award and remove yourself from the gene pool, to the benefit of all.

      Ironically, anarchy on the roads may be safer than rules. A town in Denmark??? tried that experiment, and found that when traffic rules are removed, people slow down and start paying attention to driving. This cuts down on fatal and serious injuries accidents by a lot.

      1. I remember the same study, which has since been replicated in Germany. Nowhere are people more convinced that their slavish desire for government intervention is more neccesary than traffic laws – and nowhere are they more obviouslt wrong

  6. Within the state in which I’m living in fathers who fall behind on their child support payments immediately have their drivers licences suspended. Two I personally know had their marriages fall apart while serving tours in Iraq. Both returned disabled. Both had their licenses suspended due to the inability to stay current on their support payments, which resulted in snowballing debt and suffering for all involved.

    Just brilliant.

    1. It is horrifying to think how government is so completely responsible for destroying those mens lives.

  7. My license has been suspended since 1995 for unpaid excise tax. My first husband financed and registered a car in my name without my knowledge, ran up excise tax for a few years, and when I took the kids and left him, he had it repossessed but kept the plates so the tax clock kept ticking a while longer. I’ll be fucked if I pay even a penny of that shit, but I also haven’t given up driving.

    Remember, kids, you don’t need a license to drive, you need a license to get pulled over. Sure, it takes some of the fun out of driving, but an unobtrusive, well-maintained car scrupulously following all traffic laws while staying within 10mph of the posted limit rarely draws even a glance from the cops. No doubt it helps that I’m a middle-aged white woman, but the major part of successfully going undetected during 20 years of operating after suspension has been hiding in plain sight by never calling unnecessary attention to my driving.

    1. Good for you. As for any chicken-shit traffic ticket, I’ve grown into the position of no harm, no foul.

      If someone is going 90 in a 55, and nothing dangerous is occurring, then leave them alone.

      As for that old adage “Driving is a privilege, not a right.”, I think we’ve had that backwards; Driving is a right, not a privilege.

      1. “Driving is a right, not a privilege.” — A million times this. Operating your own private property is the most fundamental right. Few things are as fascist as imprisoning innocent people for their use of such rights.

    2. And hope you never run into any DWI or ‘safety’ check points.

      1. True enough, I suppose, but not something I worry about. There are plenty of downsides to living in a decaying small city in a sparsely populated, rural county, but as tiresome as familiarity and predictability can be in most spheres of life, they’re a godsend where police behavior is concerned. I stay out of their way by making sure they stay out of mine.

  8. And this month, a California lawmaker introduced a bill that would make it easier for people to reinstate their licenses, after a report said that four million California licenses had been suspended for failure to pay or failure to appear in court.

    “For many families, a driver’s license suspension is the beginning of a descent into abject poverty for which there is no escape,” the proposed law says.

    Notice how they address the problem by writing more legislation and passing more laws?

    Always MOAR.

  9. Well, you gotta keep the rabble under control. In Soviet Union, government withheld internal passports from peasants to keep them put. Communist China does something similar with residency permits, I believe. In US, where car is the principal way to get about, driving is a “privilege”, granted at the pleasure of the state.

  10. my license is currently suspended for failure to pay the reinstatemeng fee, the original nonmoving viilation long since resolved. i hold the dmv in such contempt it causes me literal physical illness to enter it to beg for my licemse back, amd so i refuse to do so for the time being. fuck the dmv and the statist nonphilosophy that undergirds its vile existence

  11. Why should there even BE “drivers licenses”? We shouldn’t need permission from the government to drive on public roads.

    1. How about flipping this attitude?

      Why shouldn’t there ALSO be “walkers licenses”? Think of all the accidents caused by “pedestrian error”. And think of the REVENUE!

  12. I served a 10 day sentence in a minimum security county jail in Orange County a decade back. I was very surprised to note (conservatively) that about 1/4 of my peers were there for driving on a suspended licence. Roughly an equal number were serving dui sentences.

  13. This whole article has to be completely wrong. I have been told by Top Men that the reason we can’t have voter ID laws is because poor people don’t have driver’s licenses, and are incapable of getting them.

  14. Here is a tip: The USA recognises Mexican driver’s licenses. Most Mexican states have inept government bureaucrats, so it is easy (no actual driving-skill tests given) to get a Mex dri lic. I have 2 of them, from Veracruz and also Jalisco.

    Have a nice vacation in Mexico, and while you’re there, get a license, dental work, cheap medicines mostly without prescriptions needed, and then fly home.

    Don’t worry; be happy!

  15. Fuck. Yes driving is a priviledge but Jesus. My license was suspended and I can’t pay all the late fees.. I take care of my mother who had a stroke had to quit my job cuz I’m the only one who cares out of my family, so if my mom was to die, I’d be homeless and how in the hell can I pay back 1000 bucks.. and here us the main corrupt issue I have.. judges when they assess fines and or tickets costs they are suppose to ask if you can pay and if you say u can’t they are suppose to look into it and give you options to resolve that in lieu if you can’t pay. Which 90% of judges dont do. The systems blows its either go to jail be fucked for a very long time.. I’m suprised people haven’t petition to change this stupid law.. for trying to collection of many but it backfired.. more homeless people cuz of this. Stand up repeal the law in your state and get reform on how much they can charge and to make sure the rules are followed.

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