Civil Liberties

Drivers Successfully Challenge Debt-Based License Suspensions

Civil liberties groups argue that debt-based license suspensions are unfair and illogical since they deprive people of transportation, preventing them from earning money to pay off debts.


Like many states, North Carolina punishes drivers with unpaid fines and fees by suspending their licenses. But as a result of a successful legal challenge to that policy, roughly 185,000 North Carolina residents may be eligible to have their driver's licenses restored.

The Charlotte Observer reported in March that a federal judge had approved a settlement in a long-running class action lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of North Carolina. The ACLU argued that North Carolina's policy violated the due process rights of drivers who were too poor to pay. Under the settlement, residents whose licenses were suspended will have a chance to persuade a judge that they could not afford to pay their fines.

The settlement will reduce "the harms of the unnecessarily harsh and punitive practice of revoking people's drivers' licenses because they are not wealthy, a practice which has disproportionately affected people and communities of color," said Michael Delgado, staff attorney for the ACLU of North Carolina, in a press release. "People should know that there's a process to request a court hearing and possible relief if they believe their driver's licenses were wrongly revoked."

Civil liberties groups argue that debt-based license suspensions are unfair and illogical. The practice deprives people of transportation, which prevents them from earning money to pay off their debts. Debtors who don't have access to reliable public transportation must choose between losing their jobs and driving with a suspended license, which can result in stiffer penalties and deeper debt if they are caught.

Federal judges in several similar lawsuits around the country have sided with indigent plaintiffs. "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," U.S. District Court Judge Aleta Trauger wrote in a 2017 order restoring the driver's licenses of two Tennessee residents. "It is using a shotgun to treat a broken arm. There is no rational basis for that."

Since 2017, according to the Fines and Fees Justice Center, 22 states have passed legislation reducing debt-based license suspensions. That means residents in most states are still at risk of losing their freedom to travel and work for no plausible public safety reason.