Losing Your Driver’s License to Debt

Charlene Crowell
By Charlene Crowell –

43 States Allow Suspensions Due to Unpaid Court Debt

Personal vehicles transport parents to work, take multiple generations to school, access medical and/or business services, and more. With a car and a driver’s license, consumers gain mobility to go about their daily lives in all their multiple dimensions.

But what happens when that driver’s license is revoked or suspended?

In 43 states and the District of Columbia, driver’s licenses can be suspended because of unpaid court debt. Only four states currently require an “ability-to-repay” or a “willfulness” determination. In most locales, suspension of a driver’s license over nonpayment of driver-related charges can lead to the loss of driving privileges for years.

That leaves consumers in 39 other states in a financial quagmire. Whether a license is suspended or revoked, the likelihood is that the driver will incur a range of fees that many consumers find unaffordable. Without a driver’s license to reliably get to a job and its earnings, the ability to repay assessed fees becomes nearly impossible.

The fees and fines that lead to the revocation of drivers’ licenses strike the hardest among consumers of color. In 2017, according to the Federal Reserve, median family wealth by race and ethnicity reveal $215,000 for whites, $35,000 for Latino families, and only $14,400 for black families. Further that same year the Fed found that nearly one in five black families have zero or negative net worth—twice the rate of white families.

According to the Legal Aid Justice Center in Virginia, nearly a million people with a suspended license, or one in six, could not pay their fines. If caught driving on a suspended Virginia license, consumers can be incarcerated for up to a year and also incur a $2,500 fine. Those who are either late or short in paying traffic fines can have their driver’s license suspended. Commonwealth courts and judges can take this action through the assistance of computers – not people, leaving many consumers unaware it has even occurred.

The State of Illinois offers another insightful example:

Nearly 50,000 Illinois licenses are suspended each year because drivers cannot pay their tickets, fines, or fees—including non-moving violations that have nothing to do with driving; and

In Cook County, home to Chicago, people arrested for driving on a suspended license spend an average of 14 days incarcerated, at a cost to taxpayers of $5.5 million annually.

Fortunately, a growing number of organizations and consumer advocates are now dedicating resources to address this largely unreported trend. These advocates include but are not limited to National Consumer Law Center’s (NCLC) Racial Justice & Economic Opportunity Project, Harvard Law School’s Criminal Justice Policy Program, the North Carolina Justice Center, California’s Back on the Road Coalition, Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Center for Responsible Lending (CRL). These advocates oppose these punitive policies and practices, particularly for the financial hardships imposed on the poor.

In North Carolina, the Second Chance Alliance has developed a change strategy that is largely based on the real-life experiences of people impacted by these injustices. Further, their strategy combines reforms directed to local courts as well as legislative initiatives. On 2017, according to the Alliance, over 1.1 million North Carolinians had their driver’s licenses suspended indefinitely for failure to either appear in court or pay fines.

“Excessive fees and fines pose a fundamental challenge to a fair and effective criminal justice system,” said Larry Schwartztol, executive director of Harvard Law’s Criminal Justice Policy Program. “At their worst, these practices can lead to a two-tiered system of criminal justice, exposing indigent defendants to especially harsh outcomes.”

In A Pound of Flesh: Monetary Sanctions as a Punishment for the Poor, a book by Dr. Alexes Harris, a professor of sociology at the University of Washington, over seven million Americans are either incarcerated, on probation, or on parole. Further, court-ordered monetary sanctions that compel criminal defendants to pay fines, fees, restitution, or other court-imposed costs bring more difficulty to those seeking to reenter society.

“Because they cannot be held fully accountable for their offending when they are unable to pay, the poor experience a permanent punishment,” wrote Dr. Harris in the book’s preface. “Nevertheless, non-elected court bureaucrats enforce this system and assess debtors’ remorse for their crimes based on their own ideas about personal responsibility, meritocracy, and accountability.”

This trend of “punishing the poor” gained additional momentum in the aftermath of the foreclosure crisis. With plummeting tax collections, many cities, counties, and states sought “revenue enhancements” to fund governments. The unfortunate result is that the same communities that were targeted for millions of unsustainable mortgages that ultimately led to foreclosures are now being financially hit again.

“Black and brown communities already unjustly bear the disproportionate burden of inequities in our criminal justice system,” noted Lucia Mattox, CRL’s Western States’ Policy and Outreach Associate. “The suspension of driver’s licenses follows the same trend lines.”

“States and local governments have a critical role to play in reversing these trends and policies that unfairly trap people in debt cycles,” she added. “Any entrenchment of racial inequalities denies freedom.”


Charlene Crowell is the communications deputy director with the Center for Responsible Lending. She can be reached at Charlene.crowell@responsiblelending.org.

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