Millions of drivers in the United States have lost their licenses for failing to pay court debts, according to a new report, and advocates say the practice unfairly punishes the poor.
The report, released Tuesday by the Falls Church, Va.-based Legal Aid Justice Center, which represents low-income Virginians, says that 43 states and the District suspend driver's licenses because of unpaid fines and fees, trapping people in a "vicious court debt cycle."
The study indicates that the licenses of more than 4.2 million people were revoked in the five states it studied: Virginia, Texas, North Carolina, Tennessee and Michigan. Those states were chosen because of existing litigation or because the numbers were readily available.
Texas led the way, with 1.8 million licenses suspended for failure to pay. North Carolina was second with 1.2 million, and Virginia was third with 977,000.
Among all states, just four require officials to determine whether defendants can afford to pay fines before suspending their licenses, according to the study, which says "virtually all" states that suspend licenses can do so indefinitely. In addition, 19 states require that licenses be suspended for unpaid fines.
"Across the country, millions of people have lost their licenses simply because they are too poor to pay, effectively depriving them of reliable, lawful transportation necessary to get to and from work, take children to school, keep medical appointments, care for ill or disabled family members, or, paradoxically, to meet their financial obligations to the courts," the report says.
The Legal Aid Justice Center released the report about a year after filing a class-action suit that alleged that the licenses of more than 940,000 Virginians were suspended in an "unconstitutional scheme." The suit explained the struggles faced by four plaintiffs, including Damian Stinnie, a Charlottesville man diagnosed with lymphoma who became homeless after failing to pay about $1,000 in traffic fines.
A federal judge dismissed the class action in March, saying the issue should be decided by a state court — a decision that is under appeal. The Stinnie case opened the door for similar cases across the country, including in Michigan, California and Texas.
"We actually had people contacting us from other states to ask for our complaint and to look at the litigation," said Angela Ciolfi, a legal director at the Legal Aid Justice Center. "It was clear to us it wasn't just a Virginia problem."
Adrian Fowler, a 32-year-old single mother of a 4-year-old daughter in Detroit, is the plaintiff in a federal Michigan class action filed in May that challenges that state's "unconstitutional wealth-based suspension scheme," the lawsuit said.
Fowler has lived without a license since 2012, when she tried to renew it and learned it was suspended for unpaid tickets she received while living in Georgia, according to the lawsuit brought by Equal Justice Under Law, a Washington-based nonprofit that fights wealth discrimination. The first ticket was a citation for "obstruction of view" for a small windshield crack, Fowler said.
Now, she estimates she owes $2,000 in two states. Fowler makes $8.90 per hour, Michigan's minimum wage, working part time as a security guard and turned down a higher-paying job with her employer because of a lack of transportation. She also got a speeding ticket while driving her daughter to the hospital, according to the lawsuit.
"Hopefully they will take accountability to stop this and work with people," Fowler said. "A lot of these courts, they don't care if you're trying to go to school, buy a house, save college funds — they just want their money."
In a response to the suit, attorneys for Michigan's secretary of state, the defendant in the case, said in a court filing that the issue shouldn't be decided by a federal court and that "fines are rational."
"Those who commit an offense and are in the system . . . consume the system's resources," the response said. "Recouping some of those costs is long-standing, reasonable and permitted under the law."
The issue gained prominence in 2015, when a Justice Department investigation of the Ferguson, Mo., police department found law enforcement acting as a "collection agency" for state and local governments trying to raise revenue.
Advocates for the poor say those struggling under court debts, especially in areas without access to public transportation, have a difficult time getting back on their feet.
"Suspended licenses can trap people who are poor in an impossible situation: they cannot afford to reinstate their licenses without steady employment, but they are unable to work without a license," the Michigan suit says.