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Report Finds States’ Suspension of Driver’s Licenses for Unpaid Fines Counterproductive

by Derek Gilna

The Legal Aid Justice Center released a report on September 26, 2017 that makes the argument the laws of 43 states that provide for the suspension of driver’s licenses for non-payment of traffic tickets or other court debt, which bear no relation to driving, creates a cycle of poverty among the nation’s poorest citizens. These states, most of which are in severe budgetary difficulty, have apparently made the policy decision to prioritize revenue over the quality of life for those individuals.

Although no one disputes that states have a legitimate interest in ensuring traffic laws are obeyed, but it is also indisputable that many municipalities fund their operations through traffic fines. The report accuses some states of also attempting to tap into this same source of revenue by denying individuals with unpaid fines and other governmental obligations a driver’s license.

According to the report, “License-for-payment systems punish people—not for any crime or traffic violation, but for unpaid debts. Typically, when a state court finds a person guilty of a crime or traffic violation, it orders the person to pay a fine or other penalty along with other administrative court costs and fees. If the person does not pay on time, the court or motor vehicle agency can—and in some states, must—punish the person by suspending his or her driver’s license until the person pays in full or makes other payment arrangements with the court.”

However, this policy is clearly self-defeating because when people who cannot pay their fines and other obligations to the state lose their driving privileges they cannot earn the money to pay those obligations. They cannot drive to the doctor, do their food shopping, or take their children to school. They can, however, be put in jail, almost ensuring that their fragile financial situation will become even more dire.

The report notes that this issue affects millions of people: “we know that the individuals whose licenses are currently suspended or revoked for failure to pay court debt number in the millions. Indeed, just five states account for over 4.2 million people: 1.8 million Texans; [a]lmost 1.2 million North Carolinians; 977,000 Virginians; 146,000 Tennesseans; 100,000 Michiganders.”

Angela Ciolfi, the center’s litigation head, said, “Those who can’t pay, lose their licenses and consequently suffer a never-ending cycle of debt and incarceration, so long as the law forces them to choose between driving illegally and forsaking the needs of their families.”

In conclusion, the report states, “At a time of historic income and wealth inequality, states should urgently reexamine whether the policy’s immense costs to individuals, communities, and states overwhelm its benefits. At a minimum, license-for-payment states should review their policies to ensure their systems provide due process, with adequate safeguards in place to make certain no person is punished because of poverty.” 

Source: www.the


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