Poverty

More Than 7 Million Americans May Have Suspended Licenses for Unpaid Tickets and Court Fines

The practice traps the poor in a spiral of debt, hobbling their ability to pay off their fines.

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Michaela Rehle/REUTERS/Newscom

An estimated 7 million people—and mayber far —nationwide have had their drivers' licenses suspended for unpaid traffic tickets and court debts, The Washington Post reports.

Legislators passed license suspension laws to deter scofflaws. But civil liberties and anti-poverty groups argue that such laws instead trap poor residents in a spiral of debt, leaving them unable to drive to work to pay off their fines without a risk of racking up even more debt—or even jail time—for driving on a suspended license.

Forty-one states suspend licenses for unpaid traffic and court debts. The Post notes that its 7 million figure may be a significant undercount, since several states could not or would not release the information. Several states also did not track the reason for license suspensions.

As Reason reported in 2016, nearly 900,000 Virginia residents—roughly 11 percent of the state—had suspended licenses at any given time. The majority of those suspensions were for unpaid court debts. According to the Post's analysis, Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia alone account for 10 percent of the suspended licenses it found nationwide.

Robert Taylor, a 28-year-old Virginia resident whose license had been suspended, told Reason that he was buried under a small mountain of debt from repeated fines. He was unemployed and unable to find a new job because of his lack of mobility.

"It's kind of like my feet are cut off," Taylor said. "I can't get anywhere. I want a job. I'll see a job, and when I find one I'm qualified for—I know I could run that store so well—but I can't get to it. Public transportation just isn't there. The bus will bring you in, but it won't take you back out. The only way to do it is to hopefully know someone who will give you a ride. So many of my friends have gotten traffic tickets that they've moved closer to town."

A report released last year from the Legal Aid Justice Center in Virginia found there were 4.2 million suspended drivers' licenses for unpaid court fines in five states alone. Only four states, the report said, require courts to determine a person's ability to pay before assessing a fine.

The practice came under scrutiny following the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, over the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown. Subsequent media reports revealed that the town padded its budget through the heavy-handed enforcement of petty fines and fees.

In a "dear colleague" letter released in 2016, Vanita Gupta, the former head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, wrote that "state and local courts are encouraged to avoid suspending driver's licenses as a debt collection tool, reserving suspension for cases in which it would increase public safety."

Federal judges have not looked kindly on the practice as of late. In January, a federal judge in Michigan enjoined the practice when it's applied to the very poor, ruling that suspending licenses without ascertaining the debtors' ability to pay likely violates due process.

And last year, a federal judge in Tennessee reinstated the drivers' licenses of two residents in what may have been the first ruling of its kind. As Reason reported:

Those two Tennessee residents are Fred Robinson and Ashley Sprague. According to the lawsuit, Robinson, 32, suffers from serious medical conditions, cannot work, and barely subsists on Social Security payments. Sprague is a mother of five who makes under $3 an hour as a Waffle House server.

Both Robinson and Sprague accrued misdemeanor traffic fines of several hundred dollars, and when they failed to pay, their drivers' licenses were suspended. Both were also told, when they tried to make partial payments, that no such installment plans were allowed. In addition to their other fines, they must now pay another $200 fee to have their licenses reinstated.

"One needs only to observe the details of ordinary life to understand that an individual who cannot drive is at an extraordinary disadvantage in both earning and maintaining material resources," the judge wrote in her order. "Suspending a driver's license is therefore not merely out of proportion to the underlying purpose of ensuring payment, but affirmatively destructive of that end….Taking an individual's driver's license away to try to make her more likely to pay a fine is not using a shotgun to do the job of a rifle: it is using a shotgun to treat a broken arm. There is no rational basis for that."

A similar class action lawsuit challenged Virginia's license suspension practices in 2017, but it was dismissed on technical grounds.

In response to growing criticism, Virginia announced changes in 2017 that were intended to keep poor residents from having their driver's licenses suspended simply because of their inability to pay court fines. But a year later, nearly a million Virginians—one out of every six licensed drivers in the state—still had suspended licenses for unpaid court debts, according to the report by the Legal Aid Justice Center.

"It appears that these reforms have done little, if anything, to stem the breathtaking current of Virginians losing their licenses," the report concluded.

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  1. Looks like somebody got bored and decided to rewrite an old archives article.

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  2. Ideally there should be a type of limited license you get while working out traffic charges – letting you drive to work and shop for food, etc., but not allowing pleasure jaunts.

    My main concern with this idea is that it would be the DMV supervising it, which could mean them forgetting where you work and not allowing you to drive there, etc.

    1. Also, if you try to update your home or employment address, you have to do it by mail and it takes 7-10 weeks.

    2. Even better would be creating a transport grid that doesn’t require a car for necessary errands and the short-trip stuff.

      Work/commute? Well I have no sympathy for that if the unpaid stuff is driving-related. And fixing the above problem re the short trips would also go a long way to solving the lack of longer commute-type options – assuming a modicum of creativity in what ‘transport grid’ means.

      1. Even better would be creating a transport grid that doesn’t require a car for necessary errands and the short-trip stuff.

        So, *more* urban planning and mass transit subsidies?

        That sounds worse than the status quo.

        1. A wood chipper would be even better,but not as good as civilian-owned guns capable of full automatic fire.

  3. I had to drive like that one. Got rear ended and I didn’t have insurance so they took away my license. Even though I got rear ended. But what is one to do? One must drive to get to work. So I just drove extra careful and took residential streets to avoid random cops.

  4. One needs only to observe the details of ordinary life to understand that an individual who cannot drive is at an extraordinary disadvantage in both earning and maintaining material resources

    #APrivilegeNotARight

  5. It appears that these reforms have done little, if anything, to stem the breathtaking current of Virginians losing their licenses

    FIVE MORE YEARS! FIVE MORE YEARS!

  6. Legislators passed license suspension laws to deter scofflaws. But civil liberties and anti-poverty groups argue that such laws instead trap poor residents in a spiral of debt, leaving them unable to drive to work to pay off their fines without a risk of racking up even more debt?or even jail time?for driving on a suspended license

    “We license drivers! Why can’t we just have a license for…”

  7. Commit minor traffic infractions like a thug, lose your ability to participate in the economy like a thug.

  8. “and mayber far”

    ???

    1. Was wondering about that one myself.

  9. Abolish drivers’ licenses. Why should we need permission from the government to drive on OUR roads?

    1. Because the road isn’t YOURS. You want to drive around on YOUR property – guess what you don’t need a license

      1. Whose is it, then? We paid for it.

      2. Why do we need government driver’s licenses? You don’t need a sidewalk license? Why can’t your insurance company license you? And, in the end, how effective are government issued licenses at increasing public safety? There’s no training required and the skills/knowledge tests are minimalistic. Most 13 year olds could pass a driver’s test. There’s no refresher training nor ongoing education requirements. Driver’s licenses are like 90% of occupational licenses – power grabs by the government with no objective justification other than more power/money.

        Plus, tons of people are driving – safely -without ever having gotten a license or having their license suspended.

        1. In Pa, a guy inspecting your car has to go to a class every five tears. The guy who can cut into your brain or other innards , never, after getting his diploma.

          1. This can be rationalized: Car designs change. Brains don’t, and someone who is cutting into them regularly is not going to forget the details.

  10. And yet, not one word about the total lack of a hearing; sometimes not even a notice, just a suspension you only find out about as they haul you off to jail. I thought due process would require allowing some kind of defense? Even just a BS ‘it won’t me” defense.

  11. Lose a driver’s license b/c of parking tickets? That’s fucking stupid.
    What if your brother borrowed your car and parked illegally?
    How is a non-moving violation related to your ability to drive?
    Government is the root of all evil.

    1. Superfluous “root of”.

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  13. Sprague is a mother of five who makes under $3 an hour as a Waffle House server.

    Um… what?

    The local convenience store starts employees at $10/hr. In Texas.

    1. They’re not counting tips.

      1. Makes a better story that way, facts be damned.

      2. Unless she’s a terrible waitress, she’s taking home double the minimum wage – although it’s likely that the IRS only knows about part of that…

  14. Even if you pay without going to court, many states still hit you with “surcharges” that sometimes are more than the original fine. When you pay a ticket, you are pleading guilty and for some reason that allows states to fine you again.

  15. Welfare starts at well above that. Why waste time working?

    1. There is no such thing as “welfare”. Hasn’t been since the Clinton administration.

  16. Suspension for unpaid parking tickets? I challenge that assertion. Unable to renew a license for unpaid fines is common practice, but that’s not suspension. Most States Suspend for multiple moving violation or aggravated offenses like DUI, vehicular manslaughter, high speed(+30) etc. Also, CDL’s fall under stricter rules like Hours of Service violations and 3 +15 speeding violation in a year. PDPS is a national data depositary where States share information. Some States reciprocate, therefore, if you are suspended in Maryland, you are suspended in New Hampshire.

    By the way, it is always about the money, the life blood of government. The ability to pay is not a consideration of/by the bureaucrat, that is a political endeavor which divides citizens.

    The article is Reason showing its Marxist tendencies.

    1. You are uninformed. Many states suspend licenses for non-moving violations, and even for things that have nothing to do with driving.

      28 ways to lose your license

  17. Tip for driving in Detroit: If another car hits yours, keep going. Call 911 or stop at the first police station you pass because the other driver probably has no license or insurance – or else it’s a setup for a robbery.

    1. Better tip: don’t drive in Detroit.

  18. “So many of my friends have gotten traffic tickets that they’ve moved closer to town.”

    The humanity!

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