A bill introduced Tuesday in the D.C. Council would prevent the city from suspending low-income residents' driver's licenses because they have unpaid parking fines and traffic tickets, a practice some say unfairly punishes the poor.
Driver's license suspensions have been criticized by anti-poverty advocates since a 2015 federal investigation focused on Ferguson, Mo., showed that law enforcement used fines to raise revenue for state and local governments. One study of five states released in September found that more than 4 million people had lost their licenses for failure to pay court debts.
It's not clear how many people in the District would be affected by the proposed legislation.
In October testimony before the D.C. Council, Department of Motor Vehicles Director Lucinda M. Babers said the city doesn't track the number of licenses lost for failure to pay fines because those violators are included in a larger count of licenses suspended for failure to appear in court. She said about 3,800 people had their licenses suspended for failure to appear in fiscal year 2015, while the number last year was 3,300.
The bill would end such suspensions, calling them "punishment for low-income District residents."
Under the proposal, D.C. residents earning less than $39,000 per year would be exempt from having their licenses suspended for not paying court debts, as would those receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits. The bill also would end the practice of suspending licenses for failure to pay debts in civil actions — such as unpaid debt to a car-insurance company that resulted from a civil judgment — and would allow some people convicted of driving with a suspended license to get their licenses back.
Drivers could still have their licenses suspended for dangerous driving or criminal convictions.
"In no instance will an operator's permit or driving privileges be revoked or suspended for failure to pay a debt without a finding that the person is able to pay," the bill says.
Elissa Silverman (I-At Large), the bill's author, said in a statement that "an unpaid parking ticket or two can plunge a D.C. low-wage worker into prolonged financial and legal jeopardy."
"Suspending a driver's license over relatively small debts means that a resident might not be able to get to work, which puts their job at risk and makes it even harder for the debt to be paid off," she said. "And if they choose to drive anyway, they risk a felony charge. We can avoid these bad choices by allowing low-income residents to pay off their debt without losing their ability to drive."
Department of Motor Vehicles officials did not respond to requests for comment.
At an October D.C. Council hearing on license suspensions, Ward 8 resident Regina Pixley told lawmakers she learned her license was suspended in 2012 when she tried to renew it but couldn't because she owed about $6,500 in fines after her car was towed to D.C.'s impound lot.
She couldn't afford to get the car out of impound, she said, so it was sold. Then she couldn't pay the fines, which doubled even as she no longer had the vehicle.
Pixley said she still had to make car payments, and her D.C. tax refunds were garnished to pay the fines.
She said she wasn't sure whether to drive to Baltimore when her mother had a heart attack in 2015.
"I believe in the law, I obey the law, but I had to make a decision," said Pixley, a former school bus driver who says she lost her job because of the suspension. "Do I go and be by my mom's bedside and drive without a license?" She added: "This is a system that's broken. It really needs to be fixed."
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) didn't immediately respond to a request for comment. In January, she said she would work to change a D.C. law that suspends the driver's licenses of those convicted of drug offenses — even ones that do not involve a motor vehicle.
Advocates for the poor praised the proposed legislation.
"This legislation, if adopted, will be a necessary step forward for D.C.," said Ariel Levinson-Waldman, president of Tzedek DC, a nonprofit that represents low-income D.C. residents. "Suspending D.C. residents' driver's licenses for nonpayment of debt is unfair."