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More than 7 million people may have lost driver’s licenses because of traffic debt

Traffic crawls along the Capital Beltway during rush hour in Greenbelt, Md. (Jose Luis Magana/AP)

More than 7 million people nationwide may have had their driver’s licenses suspended for failure to pay court or administrative debt, a practice that advocates say unfairly punishes the poor, a Washington Post analysis found. About 10 percent of that total involved residents of Virginia, Maryland and the District.

The total number nationwide could be much higher based on the population of states that did not or could not provide data. At least 41 states and the District suspend or revoke driver’s licenses after drivers fail to pay traffic tickets or appear in court to respond to such tickets.

Driver’s license suspensions were criticized by anti-poverty advocates after a 2015 federal investigation, focused on Ferguson, Mo., revealed that law enforcement used fines to raise revenue for state and local governments. Suspensions can keep unsafe drivers off the road but also can prevent people who haven’t committed serious crimes from working, getting their children to school and getting out of debt, according to advocates for the poor.

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The Washington Post sought records from 49 states and the District (Louisiana wouldn’t release the information without a records request that cost hundreds of dollars). Jurisdictions track driver’s license suspensions differently, and some states could not or would not provide the information.

A spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles said 647,517 drivers had their licenses suspended as of late 2016 for failure to pay fines and costs. Maryland suspended 48,508 licenses, and the District suspended 3,300 in fiscal 2016 — although the District doesn’t differentiate between licenses suspended for failure to pay fines and failure to appear in court, according to its Department of Motor Vehicles.

Like the District, many states, such as Missouri and Utah, don’t track how many drivers lose licenses because of court debt.

Some states are trying to reduce their numbers of debt-related license suspensions. Alaska, for example, doesn’t have the authority to suspend licenses for unpaid court debt, a spokeswoman for its Department of Administration said, and California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signed a law in June to prevent people from losing licenses because of unpaid traffic fines.

Then-Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) signed a bill in May last year that made it easier for drivers with suspended licenses to establish payment plans.

The D.C. Council is mulling a bill that would prevent residents who earn less than $39,000 a year from losing their licenses for not paying court debt. 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.”

Ariel Levinson-Waldman, president of Tzedek DC, a nonprofit that represents low-income D.C. residents, and who worked with Silverman on the bill, said the city was “on the front end of a wave” of a national effort to restructure suspension policies in the wake of the Ferguson report.

Indeed, challenges to driver’s license suspensions are winding their way through the courts.

The Virginia-based Legal Aid Justice Center filed a class-action lawsuit in 2017 that claimed that the state suspended driver’s licenses in an “unconstitutional scheme.” President Barack Obama’s Justice Department filed a brief in support of the claim before it was dismissed by a federal judge. That dismissal is under appeal.

In a report last year that studied five states, the group found more than 4 million people had lost their licenses for failure to pay court debt.

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Angela Ciolfi, a legal director at the Legal Aid Justice Center, said the group started looking at driver’s license suspensions after finding that, even with a lawyer, the system was “too complex and too rigid” for poor people to pay their debts and get their licenses back.

“It’s not just about driving,” she said. “It’s about basic human dignity — the right to survive and take care of your family.”

Texas, by far, suspends the most driver’s licenses for failure to pay fines, although other states have a higher proportion of suspended licenses.

Under Texas’s Driver Responsibility Program, the state penalizes drivers with surcharges after they’ve accumulated a certain number of points on their license. A spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety said about 1.4 million people had their driving privileges suspended for nonpayment of fees. In addition, about 296,000 drivers couldn’t renew their licenses after failing to appear in court to answer a citation or failing to pay a fine, the spokesman said. (The state does not differentiate between “failure to appear” and “failure to pay.”)

Some legislatures have responded to the complaints of low-income drivers, and recent court rulings also have gone in their favor. In December, a federal judge in Michigan issued a preliminary injunction stopping the state from suspending the driver’s licenses of those too poor to pay court debts. In October, a federal judge in Tennessee temporarily restored the licenses of two drivers who failed to pay traffic-related debts.

In the Tennessee case, a disabled man with cirrhosis of the liver lost his license after not paying $441 in tickets for speeding and failure to maintain insurance, according to court filings in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee. He was hospitalized after the loss of his license prevented him from getting medical treatment, the documents said.

The case also detailed the plight of Ashley Sprague, a 26-year-old single mother of five who lost her license after failing to pay $477.50 for speeding and failure to provide proof of insurance. She was without a license for more than a year, she said, and temporarily lost her job at Waffle House as a result.

“Driving is a privilege,” she said. “But at the same time, if you’re a single mom with five kids trying to get on your feet, it’s a necessity.”

License suspensions stemming from court debt have caught the eye of jail administrators.

Martin Kumer, superintendent of the Albemarle County Regional Jail in Charlottesville, wondered what charges were driving up the jail population years ago after it became overcrowded. Driving on a suspended license was one of the top charges inmates faced.

“We couldn’t believe it,” he said. “We thought there must be some mistake. It was right up there with drugs and breaking and entering.”

Concerned that inmates could never escape debts, Kumer set up a program in which offenders cleared to work outside the jail could pick up trash and have $7.25 per hour credited toward their court debts. The program resulted in more than $500,000 of court debt paid off in three years.

Bill would let some D.C. drivers keep licenses despite unpaid parking tickets

Martize Tolbert, a Charlottesville man recently released from prison, lost his license in 2007 after being incarcerated for drug and weapons charges. He was released in July 2016 and got his license back last year after delays stemming from about $10,000 in court debt and interest that accrued while he was behind bars, he said.

“I was already in debt, and my license was suspended when I got out,” he said.

Tolbert has had a number of jobs since his release, most recently working as a carpet cleaner earning $12 per hour. He got his license back after the Fountain Fund, a nonprofit microlender that aims to improve the lives of former inmates returning to society, lent him about $3,000 at 5 percent interest.

Even with help, Tolbert said the path to getting his license was an “uphill climb.” A 38-year-old man with a 6-year-old son, he had to hold down a job while retaking his driving test and paying off his court debt.

“It’s hard to get out of the trouble you’re in,” he said.

Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.