More than 65,000 people had their driving privileges restored last year after the District stopped suspending driver’s licenses for failure to pay some traffic fines, according to a D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles report released this month.
In November, the D.C. DMV reinstated the licenses of residents and the driving privileges of nonresidents who failed to pay moving violations or appear at related court hearings. The DMV made the change after the District passed a law to end such suspensions, which advocates say unfairly punish poor people by preventing them from getting out of debt.
The change affected 65,922 drivers, according to the report — 50,401 people who don’t live in the District and 15,521 people who do.
The report said the DMV sent out more than 14,000 notices to affected drivers, but couldn’t contact them all because some had their licenses suspended decades ago. Suspensions of some licenses from outside the District dated back to 1986, according to the report, while some D.C. drivers had their licenses suspended as early as 1969.
The report indicated 2,282 D.C. residents still have their licenses suspended as a result of civil judgments, a practice outlawed in January. They can apply for reinstatement of their licenses when the law goes into effect in March, according to the report.
The DMV did not respond to requests for comment this week about the recent changes.
Ariel Levinson-Waldman, president of Tzedek DC, a nonprofit advocate for low-income residents of the District, praised the changes but encouraged the city to do more. He noted that drivers who owe the city more than $101 can still be denied licenses under current law.
“Driving is critical to getting to most jobs and to basic life tasks for family members,” he wrote in an email. “We know that the DC Government makes no attempt before denying license renewal to check the person’s income or whether the person is too poor to afford the outstanding fine.”
The DMV change is taking place as the practice of suspending licenses for unpaid fines comes under scrutiny across the country.
Driver’s license suspensions were criticized by advocates for the poor after a 2015 federal investigation of Ferguson, Mo., revealed that law enforcement used fines to raise revenue.
Last year, a Washington Post analysis found as many as 7 million people nationwide may have had their licenses suspended for failure to pay court debt.
Some states do not suspend licenses for unpaid debt, and California outlawed the practice last year. An effort to change the law in Virginia, where about 626,000 people have lost their licenses to court debt, failed in January.
Virginia state Sen. William M. Stanley Jr. (R-Franklin), who sponsored the bill, said the idea that the state needs to suspend licenses of those who don’t pay fees and fines is “horse hockey.”
“This person doesn’t have their license, can’t drive, can’t pay court costs or fines and basically becomes a ward of the state,” he said. “They have to look to government dependency.”
The Legal Aid Justice Center, which represents low-income Virginians, filed a class-action lawsuit to end suspensions for debt in the state. Angela Ciolfi, the group’s executive director, said in an email that such suspensions are part of a “cycle of debt, joblessness, and incarceration.”
Fenit Nirappil contributed to this report.