Guest Commentary: Driver’s License Suspensions for Unpaid Debt – Punishing Poverty

Counterproductive laws that suspend driver’s licenses for unpaid fines and fees make it harder for millions to work and provide for their families.

By Nazish Dholakia

Derrick Sprouse’s driver’s license was suspended in 1988—and it stayed that way for more than two decades.

Sprouse lives in Memphis, where the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security (TDOS) suspends licenses for outstanding criminal legal debt. If he’d had the financial means to pay off his fines and fees, he could have had his license reinstated. But Sprouse, like many others, didn’t have hundreds or thousands of dollars to cover them.

In Memphis and across Tennessee (and much of the country, for that matter), public transportation is lacking, often inaccessible or nonexistent. Driving is a necessity, and Sprouse had little choice but to drive on a suspended license. He received a few tickets for doing so—and accrued more fines. He even had a few cars towed when police took notice that he was driving on a suspended license. All the while, his unpaid fines and fees continued to snowball.

The situation made it difficult for Sprouse to keep a job and next to impossible for him to pay down the debt. He said his fines eventually totaled $8,900, plus a license reinstatement fee of $1,500.

“There’s nothing you can really do. They want you to pay it off, but how can you pay it off if you can’t work?” Sprouse said.

Sprouse’s question gets at the crux of the nonsensical, contradictory, and incredibly extractive nature of laws that suspend, revoke, or refuse to renew driver’s licenses for outstanding debt that stems from traffic fines, parking tickets, unpaid child support, court fees, and the like.

TDOS has suspended hundreds of thousands of drivers for some form of criminal legal debt. Many Tennesseans have reported taking out loans and working multiple jobs for many years to pay off that debt before they were able to have their driver’s licenses reinstated.

And Tennessee is far from unique. More than half of U.S. states—including Florida, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin—criminalize people who can’t pay up and punish them by taking away their driver’s licenses despite the fact that the ability to drive legally is a necessity in much of the country.

Nationally, an estimated 11 million people have a suspended driver’s license simply because they cannot afford to pay off their fines and fees. The ramifications are severe. A license suspension makes it difficult and sometimes impossible to get to work, school, doctor’s appointments, even the grocery store. People who drive on suspended licenses can end up serving jail time or probation. If that happens, they will almost certainly incur additional fines, fees, and court costs—and find themselves further entrapped in a criminal legal system that exploits people who simply do not have money.

Laws that suspend driver’s licenses for unpaid fines and fees criminalize people with low incomes and people experiencing poverty. These practices disproportionately harm Black people, who, because of the systemic racial bias baked into the criminal legal system, are consistently stopped, searched, arrested, and incarcerated at higher rates than white people.

Minor missteps with major consequences

Marion County, Indiana (which includes Indianapolis), has a total population of nearly one million. In 2019, more than 118,000 residents—about 15 percent of those who were of driving age—had a suspended driver’s license. The numbers shocked the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office, which decided to do something about it.

Many of those suspensions stemmed from minor missteps, like driving with a broken taillight or failing to signal at a turn, which could result in a traffic ticket of over $200, according to the prosecutor’s office. In Indiana, if a person doesn’t pay the ticket for a moving violation and fails to appear in court, the Bureau of Motor Vehicles (BMV) automatically suspends their license. For their license to be reinstated, they must pay the ticket and, on top of that, they may have to pay a license reinstatement fee if they were driving without insurance. These fees start at $250, but they can, and often do, amount to several thousand dollars.

“It effectively just becomes a tax on the poor,” said Marion County Prosecutor Ryan Mears. “And it’s a tax that’s never collected, because, of course, nobody has $7,000 to pay to get their license back.”

These practices have left tens of thousands in Marion County—and likely hundreds of thousands in Indiana—saddled with fines and fees and little hope of paying them off. And Black residents in Marion County are disproportionately impacted. They make up about 30 percent of the population in Marion County but are 2.5 times more likely to be stopped than white drivers. And when stopped, they are more likely to receive more tickets, according to data from the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office. In 2021, driving on a suspended license was the most common charge filed in Indiana.

The impact of a suspended license is compounded by the fact that many employers in Marion County require job applicants to have a driver’s license in good standing, according to Mears.

“We do not have a good public transportation system here, and so employers want to make sure you can get to and from work,” Mears said.

Those who drive on a suspended license—often because they have no choice—risk additional fines, higher reinstatement fees, and jail time. In the worst cases, this could lead to someone losing their job and not being able to make rent.

“The cost to our community and the cost to society . . . you can’t even calculate the damage that does,” Mears added.

Waiving millions in traffic tickets

That’s why, in summer 2019, the prosecutor’s office ramped up its efforts to help people get their driver’s licenses reinstated and get back behind the wheel legally. In partnership with local organizations, like Horizon House and the Indianapolis Legal Aid Society, the prosecutor’s office started hosting in-person and remote workshops during which they waive and dismiss unpaid fines and help people get their licenses restored. Once the prosecutor’s office has determined a person’s eligibility based primarily on income, volunteer attorneys review BMV records with participants, explain what fines and fees the prosecutor’s office has agreed to waive or dismiss, and outline next steps. Someone may, for example, need to complete a driver safety program before they can get their license back.

Through these Second Chance Workshops, the prosecutor’s office has helped remove $1,175,000 in fines and fees for more than 2,000 people to date. They have held more than 40 workshops since 2019 and will hold more than 30 workshops this year.

But Mears acknowledges that more needs to be done, and that jurisdictions must move away from a fee-based model for minor driving infractions. We waste too much time, energy, and money citing, stopping, fining, arresting, and prosecuting people who pose no risk to public safety. And jurisdictions typically net very little—or even lose revenue—from these practices, which cost people far more than the initial infraction merits.

“The current system is not working. No one’s paying the tickets, no one’s paying the BMV reinstatement fee. This isn’t lost money. People just don’t have the money to pay,” Mears said.


Need for reform

Sprouse, in Memphis, was finally able to get his license reinstated after a judge waived his outstanding fines, and he was able to set up a payment plan for the $1,500 reinstatement fee (TDOS doesn’t allow license reinstatement fees to be waived). But it was a painstaking process, during which he often felt defeated.

“A lot of times, [I’d] just think it can’t be done,” he said.

A driver’s license suspension makes it harder for someone to secure the resources to pay off any debt, which can easily start with a single fine, like a traffic ticket, and reach insurmountable levels. And ultimately, a license suspension only undercuts a person’s ability to support themselves and their loved ones. States shouldn’t be relying on fines and fees and should stop suspending driver’s licenses when they go unpaid. Mears, in Marion County, is pushing for that change. Leaders across the country can also look to states like New York and Michigan, which have passed some of the most comprehensive reforms to date.

No one should be criminalized simply because they don’t have the money to pay.

Originally published by Vera Institute of Justice.

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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