The Sentencing Project – States suspend driver’s licenses over court-related debt

Original article appeared in Race & Justice News.

Fines and Fees

States suspend driver’s licenses over court-related debt

This year, California Senator Bob Hertzberg (D) introduced a bill that would make it easier to reinstate driver’s licenses after the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area reported that more than 17% of California adults have suspended licenses for failure to pay traffic fines and associated court fees. California uses license suspensions as a tool to collect unpaid traffic citation debt to fund government operations, including the courts. Suspensions stem not only from traffic tickets – which can range from speeding to failure to have proof of insurance – but also from non-traffic related offenses, such as littering.

The report, “Not Just a Ferguson Problem – How Traffic Courts Drive Inequality in California,” explains that a suspended license makes it significantly harder for people to get and keep jobs, creating even more of a challenge for them to pay their debt. The license suspension policy disproportionately affects people of color, who are more likely to be stopped for traffic infractions. The report recommends ending the use of license suspensions as a collection tool for citation-related debt, eliminating barriers to due process for low-income individuals, standardizing payment plans and reducing the financial burden of citation fines for low-income people based on ability to pay, and implementing an amnesty plan to provide relief to millions of Californians.

The New York Times reports that five of the 15 states with the largest prison populations have laws that suspend driver’s licenses for failure to pay traffic fines. States like Tennessee suspend licenses for unsatisfied debts stemming from any criminal case, including misdemeanors. In 2013, Washington state stopped suspending licenses for failure to pay non-moving violations (such as expired registrations), resulting in a 50% drop in suspensions, 500 fewer arrests for driving with a suspended license each month, and an estimated 4,500 saved hours of patrol officers’ time.