Stop Suspending Driver's Licenses For Unpaid Fees

Alyssa's nightmare experience with the debt trap of fines and fees in our criminal justice system began with a $25 ticket. It ended with a total bill of $2,900.

The first ticket was for failing to update the home address on her driver's license within the 10 days required by California law, an oversight we could all make. But Alyssa, like so many Americans living paycheck to paycheck and struggling to survive, couldn't afford to pay the fine.

A traffic judge suspended her license, and she continued to accumulate fees and penalties for late payment until she owed almost $3,000. Worse, Alyssa lost her job as a bus driver and now is forced to rely on public assistance to survive.

How did a single ticket end in disaster for Alyssa?

Look no further than the cruel, ineffective system of fines, fees, and suspended licenses that has trapped Americans across the country.

Since 2010, all but three states have increased the number and amount of fees and fines for civil and criminal charges - on top of the original penalties. In some cases, counties finance court costs through these fees, giving judges every incentive to charge poor defendants ever-higher fines.

These charges have a way of multiplying exponentially.

In Alyssa's home state of California, for example, fees and penalties can raise a $100 fine to $490, or $815 if the initial deadline is missed. A $500 traffic ticket can actually cost $1,953, even if it is paid on time.

As fines for everything from broken taillights to court appearances increase, many Americans are left unable to pay, and courts rarely consider people's ability to pay when assessing penalties. Faced with a tide of people unable to pay escalating fees, courts have responded in the least helpful manner possible: By regularly suspending driver's licenses.

In Virginia, nearly 1,000,000 people (1 out of every 6 people in the state,) had suspended driver's licenses due to one or more unpaid court costs or fines.

Last year, the DMV suspended almost 400,000 driver's licenses because of unpaid fines or fees - and 38 percent of those were for charges completely unrelated to driving.

Nationwide, 40 percent of people who lose their driver's licenses do so for reasons that have nothing to do with bad driving.

Experts say that not having a driver's license is one of the biggest barriers to getting a job.

In Texas, there are around 1.8 million people whose licenses have been revoked for failure to pay justice system fees and fines. The same is true of nearly 1 in 6 California drivers. These Americans are disproportionately black, brown, and poor. Many simply don't have the money to pay.

Suspending a license does not magically fill an empty bank account.

There is no evidence that suspending licenses helps recoup fees or change behavior. It just makes life harder - and can even trap people in a cycle of debt.

Experts say that not having a driver's license is one of the biggest barriers to getting a job.

Even if you have a job, losing your license could make it impossible to get there. You may be unable to get your kids to school. And if you have no choice but to drive, and are caught? You could face misdemeanor charges, more and more fines, higher and higher fees.

You can even go to jail.

James Goodwin has a family with six young children. He paid thousands of dollars and served 7 months in jail for failure to pay a $35 traffic fine.

Kenneth Seay of Tennessee wants to work, but has trouble holding a good job because his driver's license was revoked and he keeps being tossed in jail for his inability to pay nearly $5,000 in penalties. Angel Hinton owns her own business. After missing a court date for expired tags that she wasn't notified of, there was a warrant issue for her arrest, and she struggles to work without being able to drive.

There are countless such stories, of Americans ground beneath the gears of a justice system that is too often unjust and ineffective.

So what can we do?

Thankfully, there are courageous organizations leading the charge to end this abuse. The Brennan Center is a non-partisan public policy institute dedicated to fundamental issues of democracy and justice, with criminal justice debt at the forefront of their work.

They have released a powerful report on the failures of the current system, and a toolkit with materials and suggestions for better policies. Today, the Brennan Center is working with the Texas Public Policy Foundation under an Arnold Foundation grant to conduct a study to measure when and if issuing fines and fees makes financial sense.

Suspending driver's licenses takes people who are poor, and traps them in debt. It takes Americans hanging on by a thread, and robs them of their livelihoods.

The Texas Fair Defense Project filed a class action federal lawsuit against the City of Austin and the practices of the Austin Municipal Court on behalf of plaintiffs like Valerie Gonzales, who struggled with traffic fees and suspended licenses. It's part of their ongoing battle against policies that create modern-day debtors' prisons filled with poor people unable to pay court imposed fines and fees. They push for reforms that would allow indigent individuals to participate in pretrial diversion programs currently unavailable to them, instead of being trapped in debt.

In Virginia, the Legal Aid Justice Center, which provides legal representation for low-income individuals, filed a federal class action lawsuit against the state's DMV in July. The lawsuit claims Virginia's practice unconstitutional stating:

Those who can afford to pay, generally do, but hundreds of thousands of people have lost their licenses simply because they are too poor to pay, effectively depriving them of reliable, lawful transportation.

Suspending driver's licenses takes people who are poor, and traps them in debt. It takes Americans hanging on by a thread, and robs them of their livelihoods.

Those who are trying to change their lives after serving time, it puts on a path back to jail. And it does little to make the rest of us safer or more secure.

We need to start unraveling the net of fines and fees capturing millions of Americans - and ending the punitive practice of revoking licenses is the place to start.