(CN) — Forty-three U.S. states can suspend people’s driver’s licenses for failure to pay fines, regardless of their ability to pay, a policy that selectively punishes the poor, the Legal Aid Justice Center said in a report today.
This policy not only makes it more difficult for poor people to care for themselves and their children, but “paradoxically,” makes it more difficult to meet their financial obligations to the courts, the Justice Center says in the report, “Driven By Dollars.”
In five states alone, a total of more than 4.2 million drivers have had their licenses suspended or revoked for failure to pay court debt, be it traffic or criminal, the report found. Texas leads the nation with 1.8 million such suspensions.
Despite “the growing consensus that this kind of policy is unfair and counterproductive,” the report says, the policy is “ubiquitous.”
These “license-for-payment policies” especially affect poor Americans.
“While wealthier drivers have little difficulty covering court debt, people living paycheck-to-paycheck with little or no savings and families to support may not be able to pay in a lump sum or consistently make payments on installment plans,” the report states.
It relates the story of Demetrice Moore, a nursing assistant from Virginia whose driver’s license was suspended when she was unable to pay court costs from a 2002 larceny conviction.
Moore’s job required her to drive to take care of patients in their homes, and she was jailed last year for driving with a suspended license.
“Having been stripped of her license for over a decade, Ms. Moore and the family she supports have been punished, far beyond the terms of her sentencing 15 years ago, because she is poor,” the report says.
Or the 43 states that suspend driver’s licenses for unpaid court debts, 19 have laws requiring suspension for unpaid debt.
“Most state statutes contain no safeguards to distinguish between people who intentionally refuse to pay and those who default due to poverty, punishing both groups equally harshly as if they were equally blameworthy,” the Justice Center says in the executive summary of the 20-page report.
Only four states require defendants to show ability to pay or a determination of “willfulness” before their licenses are taken away.
California this year banned the suspension of driver’s licenses for outstanding traffic fines, spurred by legal action from a number of civil rights groups.
And the Texas Legislature this year passed a bill requiring courts to ask defendants about their ability to pay fines and other tickets.
“We have to stop using our courts as revenue centers,” the report’s co-author Angela Ciolfi told Courthouse News.
“Funding the courts based on amounts they collect from individuals who come before them runs contrary to basic notions of justice and fairness. The needle is turning, but I think we are at the beginning of the conversation, not the end,” she said.
The issue has received increasing attention since the violent protests after the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. Investigations showed that Ferguson and nearby towns collected a great part of their revenue from traffic fines, which disproportionately affected people of color. Several lawsuits resulted, and similar lawsuits have spread around the country, particularly in poor, minority-majority towns.
Ciolfi said, however, that reforms spreading as well. Colorado has reduced driving with a suspended license to a traffic infraction in cases where a driver’s license was suspended because of court debt.
“This is significant because in states like Virginia, driving on a suspended license carries a mandatory minimum 10 days in jail on the third conviction, regardless of whether your license was suspended for failure to pay, or for actually being dangerous behind the wheel,” Ciolfi said.
According to the report, 977,000 Virginians have had their licenses revoked or suspended for failing to pay fines.
In August, a settlement was reached in California in a lawsuit against Solano County Superior Court that challenged the court’s “license-for-payment” policy.
As part of the settlement, the court agreed to inform traffic defendants of their right to be heard about their ability to pay tickets.
In an appendix, the Virginia-based Legal Aid Justice Center summarizes the “license-for-payment” laws of all 50 states plus the District of Columbia, which also suspends licenses for failure to pay fines.