Driving Poverty

How driver's license suspensions amplify inequality.

Authorities issue driver’s license suspensions to keep unsafe drivers off the road, but they also issue suspensions for failure to pay fines and fees and for non-driving related offenses.1 The most common reasons for suspension are not drunk or reckless driving but rather failure to pay child support, failure to appear in court or pay fines, and minor drug offenses.

At least 10 million people in the United States currently have their driver’s licenses suspended, and that number could be over 20 million. The best national data available suggest that the suspension rate is about 7 percent of drivers, but that data set is old. Current rates put it well over 10 percent in some states2 and the number of suspensions has increased over the past decade.

License suspensions trap people in cycles of poverty. They trigger additional costs on top of the fines people are already required to pay, while simultaneously limiting a person’s potential to pay those fines by interfering with their ability to work3 or to seek employment.4 Reports estimate that three out of every four people with a suspended license continue to drive, which can lead to additional fines, and even jail time.

Laws that allow or require license suspension for non-driving related offenses and failure to pay exist in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. These policies deepen cycles of poverty, thrust people into the sticky criminal justice system, and sap public safety, court, and administrative resources.

In March 2016 the U.S. Department of Justice wrote a letter to state and local courts warning that suspensions are often issued illegally and unconstitutionally by denying defendants their due process rights. The DOJ is encouraging reforms to “avoid suspending driver’s licenses as a debt collection tool, reserving suspension for cases in which it would increase public safety.”4

Some states continue to legislate new reasons for suspensions, but others have already started to reform their policies. Massachusetts’ legislature recently eliminated suspensions for most drug charges5 and California is running a short-term amnesty program and considering an overhaul of suspension laws.6

Causes of License Suspension

License suspensions were originally designed to keep dangerous drivers off the roads, but in recent decades state legislatures around the country have added a lengthy list of offenses that can result in a license suspension, many of which have nothing to do with safety. The purpose of these suspensions was to coerce payment or create a disincentive for illegal behavior.

Reasons for license suspension fall into two general categories: highway safety reasons, and non-driving related reasons. Highway safety suspensions are issued for medical conditions (like epilepsy), excessive points, and drunk, impaired, or otherwise reckless driving.

Non-driving related suspensions are often referred to as “social non-conformance” suspensions, and they can be for reasons like child support delinquency, failure to pay fines, and drug charges. Almost 40 percent of suspensions nationally were for these social non-conformance reasons according to a report issued in 2013 by the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators (AAMVA), which analyzed sample data from eight states1. Other reports suggest it’s even higher. Analyses in California2, Florida7, Wisconsin8, and Vermont9 all showed that more than half of suspensions were for failure to pay or social non-conformance reasons.

Suspension and Failure to Pay Info by State

The most common social non-conformance reasons for suspension include child support delinquency, drug charges, failure to appear, failure to pay non-moving violations, failure to pay other fines and fees, alcohol possession by a minor, truancy, fuel theft, insurance lapses, and many other similar offenses

In New York, advocating the overthrow of government is grounds for license suspension. In more than a dozen states licenses can be suspended for failure to pay student loans. In California, Florida, and Texas vandalism or graffiti are grounds for suspension.

The best available national data on license suspension rates, compiled by the AAMVA, put the suspension rate at more than 7 percent,1 but they based their analysis on a data set that is about 10 years old. The rate is much higher than that now in places like California, Florida, and Texas, where recent state-wide reports have shed light on the extent of the issue.

Many experts say the upward trend in license suspensions is a lingering result of the 2008 recession. In the wake of the recession, as local and state budgets were losing revenue, many local governments increased their fines and fees to try to fill those budget holes.2

This issue was brought to national attention in the wake of protests in Ferguson, Missouri in response to the police killing of Michael Brown. The U.S. DOJ released a report slamming the local court systems for financing large portions of their budgets through fines and fees issued to their poorest residents.10

Increased fees make it less likely that people can afford to pay their tickets. So when more people don’t pay, more people get their licenses suspended.

In addition to the dozens of reasons why suspensions might be issued, some are the result of administrative mistakes, lack of notice, or violations committed by one person and attributed to another.

For example, many violations are tied to the car and not the driver, so it is common for someone to get their license suspended for failure to pay a ticket that was issued when someone else was driving their car. These issues often arise in situations when multiple people share the use of a car, or when minors drive their parents’ cars.

Red light cameras, speed cameras, and cameras at tollbooths issue tickets to the person and address associated with the license plate. Parking tickets are also the responsibility of the person to whom the car is registered

In theory drivers are notified by mail when they receive an automated ticket, or when their ticket is past due, but that system is far from perfect. A disproportionate number of young and low-income people are highly transient and many do not have a permanent address on file where they can reliably receive mail. So when speeding, red light, and parking tickets are issued they may never actually be received by the driver.

In some cases, drivers might not know they have an unresolved ticket, which triggers late fees, and ultimately a suspension. And if drivers are not receiving notices of tickets, they likely will not receive notices to inform them that their license is suspended, causing further problems.

Drivers face an additional level of risk for license suspension if their car is not properly maintained. Tickets can be issued for a broken headlight, or damage like a broken windshield. These tickets, called “fix-it tickets,” disproportionately affect low-income people because the driver has to pay to fix the car in addition to the cost of the ticket.2 If they can’t pay both the ticket and to fix their car, they risk further tickets, fines, and ultimately a license suspension.

It is also possible for someone to be issued a suspension if they have never even had a driver’s license, an issue that complicates data about suspensions. Minors can be issued a license suspension for truancy, even when they haven’t yet received a driver’s license. Underage drinking and drug charges can also trigger automated suspensions, which will appear on a person’s record even if they never applied for a driver’s license in the first place. Once a suspension is on record the person has to pay and wait out the length of the suspension if they attempt to get a license later on.

Impacts of License Suspension

Having a suspended license can disrupt a person’s daily routine, cause them to lose their job or prevent them from getting a new job. It can hamper their ability to care for family members, and disrupt their social life. It can even land them in jail. These negative consequences are compounded in rural areas and other places that lack good public or alternative transportation.

Lacking a valid driver’s license often results in difficulty finding employment. Some employers ask for proof of a valid driver’s license even when driving is not required on the job. Many industries, like construction work and home health care, rely on workers with valid driver’s licenses, and they have difficulty finding employees due to the high rate of suspensions.

An analysis conducted in New Jersey in 2006 showed just how devastating a suspension can be for job prospects. That study showed that 42 percent of people who got their license suspended subsequently lost their jobs. Only 45 percent of those who lost their jobs were able to find new employment, and 88 percent of those who were able to find new employment took a pay cut.3

Beyond the burden license suspension puts on an individual, it is a heavy responsibility for the systems that issue, administer, and enforce those suspensions. Dealing with license suspensions is an expensive and time-consuming task for police departments, courts systems, and department of motor vehicle (DMV) locations.

The AAMVA report estimated that “law enforcement agencies spend millions of dollars and lose thousands of personnel hours each year in the administration of social non-conformance related suspensions.”1

The report found that arresting and processing someone for driving with a suspended license takes about nine hours of personnel time. The state of Washington alone likely spends 80,000 personnel hours per year, the equivalent of 40 full-time employees, just to deal with suspensions for non-highway safety reasons.

License suspension also causes problems in proving identity, age, or residence if the license is actually physically confiscated as it sometimes is when a suspension is issued, or when someone is pulled over for driving on a suspended license. In some states you are supposed to surrender your physical license when it is suspended. Unless the person has a passport or has arranged for alternative government-issued identification, they could have difficulty flying, buying alcohol, or otherwise proving their identity.

Even the process of getting a new ID could be a challenge for someone with a suspended license. To get a new ID a person must find a ride to a DMV or choose to drive without a license. In addition there is usually a fee for getting an identification card.

Lack of identification could also prevent a person from voting. The report on license suspensions in New Jersey found that almost half of people whose licenses were suspended lacked identification after the suspension.

The full effects of license suspension in states where photo ID is required to vote is unclear. Advocacy groups have pointed out that low-income communities and communities of color are less likely to have IDs in places like Wisconsin11 and Alabama12 where laws requiring valid government-issued photo ID are in place.

A report released in April in California paints a stark picture of the racial disparity in license suspension and how arrests for driving with a suspended license disproportionately affect communities of color.13 The report showed that black and Latino residents are more likely to get their license suspended for failure to pay, and are more likely to get arrested for driving with a suspended license than white residents. The rate of suspension for failure to pay or appear in black and Latino communities was five times higher than the state average. These racial disparities extend to the national level.

In some states drivers are required to pay for certain courses in order to clear a suspension on their record, which can cost hundreds of dollars. Suspensions can also raise insurance premiums, or result in a refusal of coverage.

Depending on the state, unpaid fines and fees can be passed along to a collection agency, which further increases the fine and can ruin a person’s credit score, making other things in life, like getting loans or lines of credit, more expensive and less accessible.

Some jurisdictions impound the car of a driver with a suspended license. A report from Menlo Park, California found that the most common crime in the city was driving with a suspended license, which often led to impounding the car in question. More than half of those whose cars were impounded never get them back. The cost of retrieving an impounded car can sometimes rise to more than the car is worth.

For someone who is just getting by, a license suspension can easily be the catalyst that pushes them over the edge, causing them to lose their job or end up in jail.

Suspensions create a vicious cycle of deepening poverty. To get a license reinstated a person has to pay the original fine, any administrative fees, applicable late fees, and an additional reinstatement fee.

Solutions to License Suspension

Many states allow suspended drivers to get conditional licenses, because license suspensions can have such a negative impact on a person’s ability to work. In some places drivers can get a license that only allows them to drive to and from work, or just during certain hours, or for other approved uses like picking up their children from school. In most states the driver has to submit an application in order to be eligible for a conditional license, and not everyone is given the option. Getting a conditional license also requires payment of a fee.

Reinstatement generally requires payment in full, and payment options are often limited. In many states payments can only be made by money order, or cash. When online payment is available it often requires a debit or credit card, which many low-income people don’t have. In some states there might be more options if you go to the DMV, but DMV location can be far away, they often have limited hours of operation, and it can be difficult to get there legally with a suspended license.

Most states require payment of all fines and fees in full, so even if someone is willing and able to make a few payments over time in order to pay off their fees, that is generally not an option.

Payment plans are offered in some states on some occasions, but the driver must appear in court and might need to pay for a lawyer to know that a payment plan is negotiable.

As people have started to notice the unintentional negative consequences of license suspension many lawmakers and advocates are trying to change the laws around suspensions for non-driving related reasons and failure to pay or appear.

The 2013 report issued by the AAMVA made a radical suggestion: remove all social non-conformance reasons for suspension. The AAMVA report suggests a handful of alternative enforcement methods that could replace license suspension for social non-conformance reasons including wage garnishment, exemption policies, amnesty, and other diversion programs.

While no states are currently considering removing all social non-conformance reasons for suspension, a handful of states have recently revisited their license suspension policies, and more are currently considering changes.

In March 2016 the state of Massachusetts repealed a law that automatically suspended the license of anyone charged with a drug crime, even low-level possession that had nothing to do with driving. The bill also waives the $500 fee that offenders had to pay in order to get their license back.

After reports showed the extreme extent of license suspensions in California, the legislature implemented an amnesty program that began in the Spring of 2015. The amnesty program allows people to create payment plans and lower the total they have to pay in order to get their license reinstated. California’s legislature is also considering a bill that would eliminate suspensions for failure to pay or appear.

In Maryland the state legislature just agreed to a large criminal justice reform bill, and part of the negotiation was to remove jail time as a penalty for driving with a suspended license.

This year Florida was very close to passing a law that would reform some of its license suspension laws but the bill died in the appropriations committee because it would have caused a dramatic cut in revenue for the clerk of court offices around the state.

Now that the DOJ has warned local courts about their debt collection and suspension policies, more states are likely to reform their laws and practices, but reform can’t come soon enough for the millions of people around the country who have suspended licenses for non-driving offenses and failure to pay.

*Footnotes can be found here.