Law enforcement

The Excessive, Unjust Enforcement of Petty Traffic Laws Causes Too Many Americans To Lose their Driver's Licenses

Since lacking licenses can lead to lacking the ability to work (and pay fines), offenses like parking tickets or failing to come to a complete halt at stop signs can upend lives unjustly.


Most Americans' most frequent direct encounter with their government is through their government's agents stopping them for moving through the world in a motor vehicle in a disapproved manner, then fining them for some infraction—often one harmless to others.

Those fines need not be (and generally are not) adjusted to any poor citizen's actual ability to pay. As a result, many Americans find themselves criminals for not being able to afford these sorts of petty fines, commonly losing the ability to drive, which often means losing the ability to make a living to pay those fines without undue hardship. This situation got so bad in Virginia that at one point, one in six licensed drivers had their licenses suspended—not over behavior that actually harmed others, but often just over not paying the state the money it was trying to mulct from them.

The Wilson Center for Science and Justice at Duke University Law School analyzed the grim results of such petty law enforcement fines in the state of North Carolina in a new study.

It's a tough topic to find granular knowledge about nationally, as the study points out: "Unfortunately few states maintain any criminal legal debt data at all, much less regarding how fines and fees affect their residents. Similarly, national data does not exist concerning driver's license suspensions for non-driving-related reasons, and few states maintain such data. But we know that millions, at a minimum, have experienced such suspensions."

Focusing on their home state of North Carolina, the Wilson Center's researchers found around 1.2 million citizens had their licenses suspended dating back to the 1980s for either failing to pay a fine or failing to appear in court, with black and Latino citizens having suspensions disproportionate to their percentage of the population. A survey of state residents they conducted found 28 percent of those with suspended driver's licenses reported their suspensions had led them to be evicted from their homes. Many cannot possibly survive in America without the legal ability to drive, so they do so anyway—which can lead to more criminal prosecutions and fines merely for continuing to drive (even perfectly safely) without official permission.

One in 12 North Carolinians has some unpaid criminal court debt, which builds on itself; another $50 is added to your debt to the courts if you are 40 days late on paying your old debt. "The underlying causes that bring people to court" that lead to "failure to comply" orders for not paying assessed fines, "such as unpaid parking tickets, often pale in comparison to the amounts people end up owing."

Such "failure to comply" fines, the Wilson Center found, are more than 12 times as likely to be for traffic or other misdemeanors or infractions as for felonies. And they are, obviously, essentially crimes of poverty: Those making over $50,000 a year are 46 percent less likely to have license suspensions in North Carolina. (A judge in Tennessee in 2018 recognized that it's dumb and cruel public policy to punish people with such suspensions with no attempt to figure out ability to pay.)

As the study concludes, "The steady increase in license suspensions and fines and fees can create a vicious cycle of court debt and consequences that often last for years. Indeed, for many people it never ends. People can accumulate thousands of dollars in debt they cannot pay off, in part because maintaining a job is exponentially harder without a driver's license….These policies offer little to no public benefit—and in fact, are counterproductive; they create barriers to working and contributing to the economy, punish the poor, and disproportionately cause serious harms to families and communities of color."

That sort of punishment and disruption from combining poverty with minor traffic offenses should be rethought. Unfortunately, given how many localities are overly reliant on such petty fines to keep themselves afloat, it's a politically difficult fight.

NEXT: Brickbats: October 2021

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  1. On the other hand there are people who keep getting pulled over because they’re shitty drivers who shouldn’t be on the road. They’re gonna rack up fines until they lose their license, and that’s a good thing.

    1. Lmfao. It’s remarkable what your post-Trump Marxist metamorphosis has done to you. You used to constantly rail against traffic infractions as an excuse for cops to target disfavored people and groups for searches and drug enforcement, just like you used to rail against cops shooting unarmed protesters for misdemeanor trespassing. Lick those boots you fascist, drunken, child-raping fucking faggot.

        1. Old enough to have watched your transformation, obviously.

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    2. Yes but those repeat offenders will lose their license based on points even if they pay all the fines. So the fines are still superfluous

      1. Still, I’ve known people who continued to drive on a suspended license, and continued to get pulled over because they were crappy drivers. It took fines to get them to finally stop.

        1. I’ve seen the opposite, people who don’t care if their license is suspended care even less about the fines (since they typically don’t bother paying them anyway)

          Also the local cops will start to recognize you and your vehicles and pull you over *because* you have a suspended license, regardless of how you are driving

        2. Or, because they are driving without a license means they are trespassing on public property, so they should be rightfully shot in the face.

          1. That meme is going to last longer than WK’s “HO2” debacle of last year.

            1. Meme? More like a butthurt strawman.

        3. I have a friend who did that and didn’t stop until he went to prison for a year for his second unlicensed DUI (and fourth overall, I think).

          1. “unlicensed DUI”

            You can get a license to drive drunk? Man, I’d hate to see what their driving test is like.

    3. This is not about harmful drivers who actually cause accidents and hurt people. It’s about people who get pulled over for bullshit technical violations which hurt nobody and aren’t even a threat to anybody — not signalling a lane change, 10 over the speed limit, rolling right turn through a stop sign at 5 or 10 mph. If you’ve never gotten such a ticket, you are lucky and should have some sympathy for the unlucky ones.

      1. I come to a full stop before turning right at a stop sign or at a red traffic light. I do not go 10 mph over the limit. It is not luck that has kept from getting tickets, it is obeying the law.

        (just for the record, I have helped pull someone from a car that overturned going “only” 10 over the limit. Not pretty)

        1. Good for you, goody-two-shoes!

          There are probably a million rolling right turns for every accident.

          I bet more accidents are caused by goody-two-shoes coming to sudden stops and getting rear ended, than from rolling right turns. Just like red light cameras causing more accidents than they prevent.

          1. Yes, good for him. We need more careful drivers and always need more willing to stop and help.

            Not sure why you find that offensive.

          2. Umm, goody-two-shoes getting rear ended by your impatient ass for stopping at a stop sign is 100% your fault.

            1. Goody two shoes not keeping up with traffic causes accidents as well.

              1. Speed doesn’t kill. Speed differentials kill. This is why most if not all traffic safety engineers recommend raising speed limits, which haven’t changed since the 1970s, when the most common vehicle on the road was the Family Truckster.

                1. So how fast is the pedestrian compared to the 1970’s pedestrian? Or is it time for them to be obsoleted and recycled into – what?

                  1. That argument is plausible for residential streets (which are almost universally set at 25 mph). That argument has no relevance to the speed limits on a restricted-access highway – which is the context of D-Pizzles’s comment.

                    1. Speed differential is the real problem in urban/grid streets. But that problem never seems to get fixed even though it is real easy to fix. Get rid of bike lanes and parking on car streets. Get rid of through traffic on residential/bike/ped streets. Get rid of cars entirely on ped/commercial streets.

                      The traffic has to be separated completely by likely speed – but what that means is that we have to stop engineering streets entirely for cars and then sticking other stuff in on the side.

        2. The majority of drivers do not stop at the stop line. They have essentially taken over the crosswalk space. Pedestrians are a complete non-thought. IF drivers actually do stop in that vicinity (and maybe a quarter don’t even actually stop just slow down), they only stop at the point where they can clearly see the traffic in both directions in order to peel out quickly from the stop sign.

          1. As a pedestrian you are also responsible for your own safety. It’s not hard to anticipate how drivers approach intersections. I spent years walking several miles per day throughout Midtown Manhattan, jaywalking damn near every intersection; it’s really not that hard.

            Yes, cabbies trying to beat the flow of traffic can be annoying and dangerous. You know what’s more annoying and dangerous? Other pedestrians with umbrellas and no spatial awareness. And bikers, they’re the worst.

            1. As a pedestrian you are also responsible for your own safety.

              That is not even remotely the same safety burden.

          2. Really? Around here most people stop too early. As in ten feet from the crosswalk. Sometimes so far back they don’t even trigger the light, which is really annoying.

            1. I’m talking about stop sign not light-controlled intersection.

        3. I lost a coworker who was doing nothing wrong when he was killed by an unbelted driver who was ejected from his car.

      2. Are you retarded or a full anarchist? You’re effectively arguing for the abolition of speed limits, traffic signs and any sort of indication of intent while driving because you haven’t murdered anyone yet. Go with that whole no rules for anyone and see how long it takes for the accidents and related damage/deaths pile up, but to you that is not harmful somehow.

    4. I have no problem with bad drivers getting pulled over and, if bad enough, losing their licenses. However, flat-rate fines are not the way to accomplish that.

      If we must stick with the fines approach, they need to be means-adjusted so the pain and disincetive for running a red light is the same for a hedge fund manager as for the building’s minimum-wage janitor.

      1. Do you believe in “means adjusted” penalties for burglary as well?
        If not, why not?
        Crime is binary; you break the law or obey the law.
        “Means adjusting” the consequence eliminates a fundamental concept of equal treatment under the law.

        1. Anatole France agrees with you:

          The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.

        2. What about restitution for burglary?

          1. What, if the burglar does not steal enough for a living wage?

        3. The penalties for burglary are time in jail, not fines. Losing 2 years of your life is pretty much the same regardless of your financial state. Fines, on the other hand, serve as a disincentive in sharply different degree depending on your financial status. Our hypothetical hedge fund manager has to skip a single dinner to pay off a $100 fine while someone else lose their job and could be pushed into bankruptcy by the same fine.

          One could argue that flat rate fines are the violation of equal treatment. After all, they have the effect of penalizing the offenders very differently on the basis of a factor unrelated to the offense committed. The current structure could be considered the equivalent of saying that crime A always earns you a 2 year sentence but group X get to spend the 2 years in a minimum security ‘country club’ prison while group Y must serve the same 2 years on a chain gang. That would very obviously not be equal treatment. So why is recognition of obvious economic consequences unequal?

          1. So equality of outcome is your goal? Why am I not surprised. It is one thing to declare a fine to be extreme for the crime, it’s entirely another to essentially give one set of people a free pass with your sliding oppression scale.

            Penalties on fines should not be a thing though, that should be a move to restrictions that the offender might value having taken away.

        4. Burglary is (and should be) a crime. Traffic infractions are not. Stealing shit is immoral and harms people. Violating traffic rules is rarely inherently harmful or destructive. So the point is to get people to follow them as a practical measure to make roads function well and safely. Extra punishment beyond what is necessary for that is not justified.

      2. That’s how it works in Germany. They are called day-fines. Basically the fine is determined as a certain number of day’s pay. It’s a big reason they also have much lower incarceration rates

        1. Yeah, but that includes violent offenders too. Don’t want to be too punitive.

  2. Oh no! Poor people fail to follow the laws and get busted.

    The progressive answer, stop enforcing the laws on a specific class of people.


    1. Next to nobody is actually endangered by speeding or making a rolling stop at an empty intersection. Most of our traffic laws are retarded and nothing more than a pretext to pull in extra revenue and/or give 4th amendment cover to otherwise unlawful searches.

      1. For what it’s worth, being pulled for speeding on an empty road or not stopping at an empty intersection is also exceptionally rare.

    2. Your authoritarian answer seems to be to enforce every possible bullshit law to the max.

      1. It’s a Dunphy answer. Maybe it’s a Dunphy sock.

    3. Maybe the answer should be to remove some of those laws?

  3. What are driving these laws to be passed?

    1. If they’re passed on the right, they should be fined.

  4. You know what else black and latino people hate?

    Joe Biden. His numbers are tanking hard.

    1. Everyone hates Joe Biden.

      1. Oh, I don’t know; there are a lot of people, including here, that seem to like him so much they want to have sex with him.

        1. Fuck Joe Biden is not a sex thing, you pervert.

      2. Fuck Joe Biden

  5. traffic laws are tyranny.

    1. Demolition derby is freedom?

      1. fuck yeah! Malachi Crunch.

        Smokey & the Bandit was an instruction manual.

      2. Off-camber roundabouts can be self-enforcing. So can speed bumps. Esp speed bumps or roundabouts with bollards.

  6. failing to come to a complete halt at stop signs can upend lives unjustly.

    But a complete halt at stop signs *does* upend lives unjustly, because overcoming the resulting molecular adhesion has a massive carbon footprint.

    1. Bad news, Rich. Cars use tires, not feet. No footprint at all.

      1. I bet you are fun at parties.

        1. Probably more fun than most eco-freaks.

  7. When the speed limit was absurdly reduced to 55 mph in the 1980s and 90s, I got nearly a dozen speeding tickets (for going 65-69 mph) on Interstates and the Commonwealth of PA suspended my license for six months.

    While I still drive 65-69 mph, the Commonwealth increased the speed limit to 70 mph on those same highways.

    1. 69 in a 70? Get out of the left lane, gramps!

      1. Where do you live that people go that fast in the left lane?

        1. Despite appearances, Prius and Forester owners are not actually people.

          1. Add Outbacks and CSUVs to that list.

    2. please stay clear of Dallas highways, Bill it’s for your own good.

    3. All of the cops I know won’t pull people over for anything less than 15 over the limit; not worth their time, except as a pretext.

      1. In Massachusetts, the state troopers regularly do 90, not in an emergency but as a matter of course. Keep it below 80 in Mass, and you’re good to go.

        1. I once got pulled over in Florida for going 58 in a 55. I thought I was on one of those hidden camera practical joke shows.

    4. 69 in a 70? Wow! How do you and your partner manage while keeping your eyes on the road?

  8. Oh, come on. If you don’t need any I.D. to vote, why should you need I.D. to just drive? All the honest people, if given a summons for court, will show up whether the police know who they are or not, and no one would ever cheat.

  9. Pump the brakes on new traffic laws.

    1. Legislators usually fail to signal that they’re passing these laws.

      1. The rate of new laws being made is accelerating.

  10. The answer is to lower the cost of the fines to be commensurate with the offense– for everyone. Otherwise, you’re not only skating dangerously close to, but crossing the line into making an argument for fine “equity”.

    1. Progressitarians gonna be progressive

  11. Huge problems in the burbs where they fund their Police with traffic tickets. In Detroit, Police just tend to look the other way even for blatant things like running red lights.

    1. Or having an unlicensed body in the trunk?

  12. TLDR; is it racist? It’s racist, isn’t it?

    1. It’s always racist.

      1. Anything not racist?

        1. Racism apparently, but only if aimed at the right targets.

        2. Affirmative action. Definitely not racist. So I’ve been told.

  13. Every single time I’ve been stopped by a police officer for some perceived violation it has been a waste of public resource. I’ve fought and won on two tickets issued to me under questionable circumstances. Police should ignore all but the most egregious violations (e.g. running a red light with traffic present) and focus finite resources on doing things the actually improve public safety versus generate revenue for municipalities to squander on police toys and other paraphernalia.

  14. “Focusing on their home state of North Carolina, the Wilson Center’s researchers found around 1.2 million citizens had their licenses suspended dating back to the 1980s for either failing to pay a fine or failing to appear in court, with black and Latino citizens having suspensions disproportionate to their percentage of the population.”

    I’m having eye roll nystagmus after reading this one. Comparing suspended licenses to proportion of the general population instead of proportion of the same infractions is useless.

    1. Not useless, it whips up racial tensions for the benefit of those who win votes and money from those tensions.

  15. For the most part traffic fines are designed to be just cheap enough that the middle class and above will just pay without challenge and do the traffic school sentence to keep the points off of their license. It’s a straightforward racket. Everybody involved knows it is. The poor end up in perpetual debt which is an integral part of the scheme. Those pensions aren’t gonna pay themselves.

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  17. Back up.

    Is this article intending to focus on offenses that are “not dangerous to others”? What do we mean by that? Failing to pay vehicle registration/taxes? What is the correct mechanism for the government to enforce the payment of these taxes?

    Are we not supposed to have these taxes? I am sympathetic to the argument, but did I miss that article?

    1. No, that’s not how Reason rolls. It’s not libertarian principle so much as progressive outcomes.

  18. If you can’t do the time or pay the fine don’t do the crime

  19. When police have discretion to ignore laws and let people off the hook, it is the white, and rich people are disproportionately benefit. The police must be required to enforce all laws equally without discretion. Thus the more affluent will be affected and that is more likely to lead to the laws being changed. It if is important for a law to be on the books and important to use it against poor or minorities, then it needs to be enforced on the rich. If it is ok for the rich to violate a law, then it should be repealed for all.

    1. When police have discretion to ignore laws and let people off the hook, it is the white, and rich people are disproportionately benefit.

      What’re hot chicks, chopped liver?

      1. Only between their legs.

    2. Now do the FBI.

      Or Clinesmith.

      1. J. Edgar Hoover probably did do the FBI.

    3. I agree with molly, i just threw up in my mouth.

      Get rid of the laws or enforce them consistently.

  20. It takes an awful damn lot of petty traffic violations to lose your license. If you manage to do so, you have extraordinarily bad judgment and probably shouldn’t be trusted behind the wheel.

    1. Nope, I had mine suspended for failure to pay on a expired registration ticket. Wasn’t a moving violation and I didn’t have too many points on my license.

      1. Pay your fine next time, loser.

  21. O.C.D. cops are the worst. O.C.D. politicians are the worst. O.C.D. runs rampant in Democratic circles…. Just saying.

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  23. Welcome to Conservatism & structural racism in action.

    1. ^Welcome to the whine cellar where EVERYTHING is sexist, racist, prejudice driven, unfair, unequal ALWAYS; when more likely the reality is the only one’s being sexist, racist, prejudice driven, and unfair are those in the whine cellar.

  24. Fines can’t be paid? Then what replaces the fine as a punishment? I’d be perfectly happy with caning. If you can’t pay, bend over and take your licks. No wasted money on court time, just a few red welts on your ass for a few days. Keep your car, keep your job, keep your home.

    Fixed. You are welcome.

    1. When I had my license suspended because I was too broke for the fine, I would have gladly taken a whipping to keep my license and my ability to get to work legally.

    2. It would be creating a moral hazard for Masochists. They might do traffic infractions even more.

  25. The last ticket I got was in the middle of town from a State Police officer. He was ignoring the freeway that runs through our town in order to generate revenue on the orders of our then governor Bill Richardson. I rolled through a stop sign in a deserted area. Not a single far was in view, he was hiding like a coward in the weeds. I paid it of course, but not everyone in New Mexico, which boasts the 49th best economy in the nation, is as fortunate as I was to have the spare cash. When he left office Richardson high tailed it to Florida with $7 million he had accumulated from his $110k salary but his despicable policies remain.

  26. These draconian penalties would be better served as complications arising from reckless driving (so defined by these violations that lead to close misses with other vehicles or pedestrians) or actual accidents.

    Rolling stop doesn’t count if the only one who witnesses it is the stake out cop not at the stop. It only counts if another vehicle is oncoming and the rolled stop cuts off the ROW or causes an accident.

    I’ve seen terrible violations where cops are no where around, from lane change in an intersection to failure to signal, that were legitimate reckless driving. But the cops don’t seem to catch those. Instead, they chase down the lone car on an abandoned straightway speeding. Or the single car at a very slow 4-way who’s intelligent enough to look for cars BEFORE reaching the stop.

  27. I went through something like this in college.

    I was a broke college student working my way through college in the 90s. My parents made enough that I did not qualify for financial aid at the time, but they also felt it would be good for me if they didn’t contribute a cent to my education.

    As such I was struggling to get by. I had a fuel sipping hatchback that could not pass emissions. It polluted far less than most cars on the road because it got 55MPG. But in my state we test emissions by parts per million, not by total output. So those cars that don’t produce much exhaust have to run that much cleaner.

    So since I couldn’t just go out and buy a new car, or afford a new engine for a car that was polluting far less than any truck on the road, I drove with an expired registration.

    I eventually got a ticket, that I paid, and then a second that hit when tuition was due. I ultimately chose to pay tuition, and ended up having my licensed suspended.

    I still drove. I didn’t really have much choice if I was going to survive. Where I lived didn’t even have transit options that could get to my work or school.

    I never did get pulled over while driving on a suspended license with expired registration but I did it for well over a year.

    Finally I was just too broke to afford school and the creditors were calling so I dropped out (best decision I ever made). So to dig myself out and get my license unsuspended I had to pay outrageously expensive SR21 insurance (the kind that is required after a DUI) even though I was clearly of no more danger than anyone else, just because I couldn’t afford the fines for not having a car that met an absurdly unscientific emissions standard.

    In the end, it cost me a few thousand extra dollars I really didn’t have.

    I am not bitter, the whole ordeal was just stupid. But I have found that now that I am older and more respectable than a college punk, I can totally let my registration lapse and the cops will just givee a warning. Shrugs.

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  31. Let’s also not forget about vehicle inspections, another revenue-generator calibrated to be innocuous to the middle class, but often crushing for the poorer among us.

    In far too many states (including mine, a ‘blue’ state) these have gone far beyond ensuring ‘safety’ to programs essentially designed to keep older cars off the road – often through regulations supported by lobbyists for car dealers / makers / etc. They include nitpick items (e.g. non-structural body panel rust) that have nothing to do with actual safety, but make it economically unviable to keep older cars in use.

    It’s pretty rare here to see a car older than ~15 years on the road. I had a 20 year old GMC that was perfectly fine and safe, but couldn’t pass inspection without many $thousands in basically ‘cosmetic’ work being done. Ended up selling it to a friend from Florida where they don’t have such inane rules, where it continues to serve 5 years on.

    If you think THAT doesn’t have a disproportionate effect on the less-than-affluent, think again. I came from a lower-middle ‘blue collar’ family. I didn’t own a <15 year old car without some rust until I was ~30, and without those 'beater' cars to get me around / to work, I don't think it's hyperbolic to say my entire career / earnings / life path would have followed a more 'challenging' course.

    Nowadays both my current vehicles (daily driver & truck used for business) are well over 100K and 10 years old. Inspection's due next month for both and I'm dreading what's come to be the annual 'tribute' to the state for the 'privilege' to not go buy a new(er) car I can ill-afford.

    1. My solution to that has long been to title my vehicles in rural areas. Now, we split our year between Phoenix and rural MT. All of our vehicles are, of course, titled in MT. I think that it might also signal to the Phoenix and DPS police that we are snowbirds, and more likely to have the time to fight tickets in court.

  32. There certainly is too much injustice in America due to government greed.

  33. Just get rid of all traffic laws & let the chips fall where they may!

  34. I’m reminded of the warnings I received against taking taxis in Taipei. To get a taxi license, a driver had to have at least a year without any traffic violations. As it turned out the only people in the territory who qualified were recently released prisoners.
    This was in the days before the construction of the Taipei Metro Service, a rapid transit system that obviates much of the need for taxis and other surface vehicles.

  35. Stopping people for petty infractions is like the broken window policing policy. Stop them for minor offenses and they may think twice about stupider actions. 50% of drivers no longer stop for stop signs…

  36. This law enforcement should be abolished earlier. Excessive law enforcement will only disgust people

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  37. It seems that the writers of this piece and the majority of comments are against enforcement of “petty traffic laws”. But I don’t see anyone advocating to eliminate those laws. So why the hell should we keep these laws if no one wants them enforced? Just let everyone park wherever they want, drive however they want, drive without a license, etc. Or is it that the only problem is that poor people can’t pay but we want to keep the laws because people with means can pay?

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