When a Traffic Ticket Costs $13,000

For most people living in America, transportation is central to daily life. About 83 percent of Americans report that they regularly drive a car multiple times a week. Yet millions of drivers across the country have had their licenses suspended — taking away their ability to drive to work, school, the grocery store or the doctor — essentially because they are poor.

In 2014, Leah Jackson was ticketed for obstructing traffic in Ostego, Minn., after turning left at a red light. That kind of thing happens to many people. But, as Ms. Jackson explained to state lawmakers in 2018 testimony, she had just started a new job and hadn’t yet received a paycheck, so she couldn’t pay the $135 fine right away.

A few months later, she was pulled over, told her driver’s license was suspended for an unpaid ticket and cited for driving with a suspended license — a new $200 ticket. Her job responsibilities as a retail store manager required her to make bank runs and other deliveries, so she kept driving in order to keep her job. In less than a month, she received two more tickets for driving with a suspended license. After accounting for the additional tickets and the resulting increase in her monthly insurance premiums, her debt from the initial infraction spiraled into more than $13,000 over four and a half years.

The criminal justice system too often produces a self-perpetuating cycle, particularly for the poorest people, who can’t pay fines or hire lawyers to make charges go away. In 39 states, you can lose your driving privileges if you’re unable to pay a court fine or fee, for things as minor as a traffic violation. But a bipartisan effort is growing to end the fundamentally unjust practice of wealth-based suspensions.

On May 7, Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana signed a bill to eliminate wealth-based driver’s license suspensions. Montana joins the District of Columbia and a handful of states, including California, Idaho, Maine, Mississippi and Virginia, that have recently stopped suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid debt. State legislatures in Illinois and Oregon are expected to vote on whether to end the practice in their states later this month.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the American Legislative Exchange Council, which typically take conflicting positions on policy debates, are aligned on this issue: Driver’s license suspensions should be imposed for the limited purpose of keeping unsafe drivers off the road, not as a debt-collection mechanism. State legislatures, courts and motor vehicle administrators should work together to eliminate laws and policies that permit driver’s licenses to be suspended for reasons unrelated to a person’s ability to drive, including nonpayment of fines and fees.

Suspending people’s driver’s licenses because they can’t afford to pay fines or fees is unfair. The A.C.L.U.’s position is that it is unconstitutional.

It’s also just bad policy. Wealth-based suspensions are at best ineffective and at worst destructive to the purpose of ensuring compliance with unpaid debt. They also drain resources that could otherwise be used to enforce laws that protect communities from drivers who engage in behavior that could actually threaten public safety, such as drunken driving. Union County, Ohio, found that driving-while-suspended violations cost an average of nine hours of officer and court time. That’s valuable time that could be spent advancing public safety rather than collecting debts from people struggling to make ends meet.

Stripping people of their driver’s licenses makes it more difficult for them to earn a living and, by extension, more difficult for them to pay off their debts. A 2011 study found that in New Jersey, 42 percent of drivers who lost their licenses also lost their jobs. In Phoenix, people who lost their licenses lost an average of $36,800 of annual income. Most people in the United States have limited access to reliable public transportation, so driving is often their only realistic means of transportation. The reality is that many people who drive with suspended licenses do so out of necessity. In the process, they risk additional fines, fees and even incarceration, all of which make it extremely difficult for them to pay their outstanding court debts.

One of the concerns of opponents of this type of legislation is that eliminating a punishment for nonpayment of court debt will result in a decrease in revenue that courts and other government agencies depend on to finance their operations. But government services should be paid for through a general fund, not through burdensome fines and fees on individuals.

Lawmakers across the country should work to eliminate wealth-based driver’s license suspensions.

Emily Reina Dindial is an economic justice advocacy and policy counsel at the A.C.L.U. and Ronald J. Lampard is the Criminal Justice Task Force director at the American Legislative Exchange Council.

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