MILLIONS OF people across the country have had their driver's licenses suspended — but not because they drove drunk or recklessly or posed any kind of public- safety risk. Rather, they lost their ability to drive legally because they failed to pay court fines incurred from parking tickets, minor traffic infractions or low-level misdemeanors. The practice is unfair, possibly unconstitutional and certainly counterproductive: The system perpetuates poverty by penalizing poverty.
The problem with laws that link the suspension of driver's licenses to the failure to pay court debt was spotlighted in a recent report examining the practice in Virginia. The Legal Aid Justice Center found that, as of December 2017, nearly 1 million Virginians (974,349) had their licenses suspended at least in part due to court debt, and nearly two-thirds of those (638,003) were suspended solely for that reason. That translates into about 1 in 6 drivers in the commonwealth. Payment plans were found to be ineffective, because the underlying issue is not drivers' willingness to pay fines but the fact that they simply don't have the money.
Virginia unfortunately is not alone in suspending or revoking licenses to punish people for failure to pay court debt. A state-by-state analysis by the Legal Aid Justice Center last fall found that 43 states and the District of Columbia suspend driver's licenses because of unpaid debt. Only four states require a determination of the person's ability to pay. Some, such as Virginia, make the suspensions mandatory, while others, including the District and Maryland, allow for discretion, albeit automated systems make its use rare. Virtually all states that suspend licenses for unpaid debt do so indefinitely, with rules that prevent reinstatement until full payment is made.
What results is a vicious cycle. You can't afford to pay an initial court fine for a parking ticket or a shoplifting charge, so you lose your license. That means you can't drive to work or hold a job that requires a license — which makes you even less able to pay your court debt. If you drive without a license, you may get into more serious trouble. Meanwhile, you can't drive your children to school or to their medical appointments.
California last year ended its license-for-payment system. Legislation to end the practice is pending in the D.C. Council and Virginia General Assembly and ought to be approved. Yanking driver's licenses should be reserved for getting dangerous drivers off the roads, not punishing people for being poor.