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.

NEXT: Brickbat: Non-Lethal Conduct

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

Please to post comments

22 responses to “Drivers Successfully Challenge Debt-Based License Suspensions

  1. I can see how removing your license as a penalty is great as a motivating consequence but ultimately unproductive in getting the fines paid, fine. I notice neither you nor the leftists at the ACLU offer any solution beyond no consequences which is not a road I think you want to go down, but are too stupid to understand that's what you're doing.

    1. The solution is day fines. Fines that are assessed as x days income rather than flat rate. Those started in Finland and are now prevalent across northern Europe. They provide equal incentives to change behavior without excessively punishing the poor just for being poor. They use it to eliminate most shorter prison sentences for property crimes.

      1. I actually have received $30,700 in no extra than 30 days via running part-time via a laptop. Just once I had misplaced my final job, I changed into so perturbed however happily I received this easy on-line provide now doing this I am equipped to get thousand of greenbacks from the consolation of my home. (res42) All of you may actually do that profession and advantage extra cash on-line traveling following site.

    2. The ACLU has offered a solution. So have several of the states that have already passed reform legislation.
      - Option 1 - income-scaled fines. If the purpose of the fine is to change behavior, the fine should produce equivalent "pain". A flat $1000 fine can be debilitating to a minimum wage single parent but would barely count as pocket change to a tech mogul.
      - Option 2 - consequences other than fines. Take someone's time instead of their money. Maybe as actual jail, maybe as community service hours, etc.

      There are other options bandied about but those are the most plausible to be effective.

      1. Scaled gives are unjust unless there is a cap. To be blunt at some point the value of what is being taken exceeds the offense committed.

        1. re: "Scaled gives are unjust unless there is a cap."

          Why? Or more precisely, which of the accepted goals of a criminal justice system are you talking about when you make that statement?

          The five generally accepted goals are Retribution, Deterrence, Rehabilitation, Incapacitation and Restoration. Of those, only Restoration actually cares about the value of what was taken. The rest depend on the characteristics (or attitudes?) of the offender.

          Consider a tech mogul committing the "crime" of stealing your lunch every day because she's too lazy to walk down to get her own lunch (or maybe it's a power thing - her motivations don't matter). If you want to Deter her from continuing to steal your lunch, you need to impose a penalty that is likely far, far above the value of your sandwich.

          1. But at, say, $50,000 per sandwich, I actually don't *want* to deter her. She can just have the sandwiches for that much, even if she only gets caught once every ten times.

        2. Once you punish people with actual time, income based or day fines quickly becomes the preferred choice of pain

  2. I just wonder how well license suspension works or how many continue to drive and probably without insurance?

  3. So liens against the cars?
    How do the taxpayers get their money?
    Or could it be some of the offenses are just fund raising bullshit and could be legislated out of existence?

    1. Maybe that is the answer. Presumably most here can afford their fines. I can’t remember when I couldn’t. But I have a decade of college behind me. I should be able to afford to pay my fines. But there are a lot of people in this country living paycheck to paycheck, or even below that level. Are the fines legitimate? Sometimes, but the standard of proof is typically that of a preponderance of the evidence, against the testimony of a professional witness. Maybe the better answer is fewer findable offenses, but that isn’t going to happen, with local governments across the country tight on money, and often deriving some of their working capital from fines.

      1. Well, I did say some - - - -
        I see a difference between ten or twenty bucks for a parking violation and several hundred dollars for reckless driving or something. There are some so poor they can't afford either, but somehow afford a car of some description. I would hate to see a study of the relationship of 'not being able to afford' fines, and not having legally mandated insurance.

  4. 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.

    One surmises that the practice of tattooing the letter "D" on the debtor's forehead would be viewed as similarly hobbling.

  5. “There is no rational basis for that."
    Yes there is.
    Regardless of whether or not you believe traffic laws are just, there have to be consequences for violating them. Otherwise you should be campaigning for repeal of the vehicle & traffic code.
    A driver who is ticketed for speeding through a stop sign now knows he can do so with impunity and that ignoring a court ordered fine will have little, if any, impact. Especially when he doesn't own the car.
    As to “too poor to pay”, to paraphrase: “don't do the crime of you can't pay the fine”

    1. Hey, don't you equity? Oppressed(TM) people deserve special treatment under the law. The (white) Man has forced them into shoplifting and reckless driving.

  6. Why do they not simply take mass transportation?

    1. Because the mass transit project is waiting on the results of 345 environmental studies?

  7. Once progressives establish their Social Justice state, will they suspend speech licenses for nonpayment of traffic fines?

    1. No. Because those who qualify for speech licenses will have government drivers assigned to them.

  8. I am not sure about NC but I think that many states also revoke drivers licenses for other ireasons, such as faliure to pay ordered child support.

    1. Ham Hands. Forgive the typos.

      1. I keep my nose clean, but when I was broke after my industry crashed in 2009 ran into this. I got my registration suspended for a parking ticket. They then suspended my license.

        Actually, I'mma tell the story.

        Nobody told me any of this. To fix the ticket I had to be registered. To get registered I had to resolve the ticket. I'd paid both, they cashed the checks, but neither got entered in the database because each was waiting for the other to be cleared. A cop actually told me that by looking it up on the computer in his cruiser and saw I was still unregistered.

        I went to the DMV, paid (including lots of money for being late) to get it sorted. But the DMV drone didn't finish the process to clear the fixit ticket for no tag, so even though my truck was registered properly my license was suspended for driving an unregistered vehicle. I found this out a YEAR later when I went to update my insurance. My insurance company cancelled me for not having a license, which of course meant my registration was invalid.

        I had to go in front of a judge, wave a ream of paperwork and proof of hundreds of dollars of late fees I'd paid to get it all sorted. He stamped it immediately and apologized, but I still had to pay the court administrative fee, as well. Then get new insurance because screw a company you've been with for 30 years dropping you rather than just waiting until you get your license renewed. Then another trip to the DMV where I VERY carefully asked the lady who helped me if everything was actually handled.

        THIS is what they're talking about. I did, in fact, park in a public lot two days after my registration tag had expired. And I paid the ticket. And the registration, including the late fee, which I had sent in late so yeah, that was on me. But that $40 parking violation chased me around for two years and $400 more dollars and almost cost me a lucrative job when I was rebuilding my business as part of my work required a clean driving record.

        It was kafkaesque. Like they didn't know if i was Tuttle or Buttle and fixing air conditioners without authorization.

Comments are closed.