Do Steep Fines On Bad Drivers Create Debtors’ Prisons?


A Virginia judge upheld steep new state fines on bad drivers, and evidence emerged that legislators and the governor may have enacted the fees without fully researching the effect on the poor of comparable programs in other states, reports the Washington Post. The Virginia Supreme Court is considered likely to decide whether the fees, which can reach $3,000, violate the constitutional guarantee of equal protection because they apply only to Virginians and not to out-of-state motorists.

In January, the Texas legislature concluded a similar program in that state was failing because thousands of drivers could not afford to pay the fees. Texas, New York, Michigan, and New Jersey impose fees, in addition to court costs and fines, on drivers convicted of serious traffic offenses, such as driving under the influence. As in Virginia, motorists who don’t pay the fees in those states could have their driving privileges suspended. Texas has reported a collection rate of 29 percent since the fees went into effect in 2003. As of a year ago, in 55 percent of cases, involving 828,000 licenses, licenses were suspended because fees were not paid. The Post has reported that the licenses of tens of thousands of motorists in New Jersey and Michigan — including many low-income drivers — have been suspended because of unpaid fees. Michigan judges are calling for repeal of the program because they are seeing an influx of motorists cited for driving on suspended licenses, which prompts a new round of fees that many cannot afford. Texas Sen. Eliot Shapleigh said, “Driving responsibility laws are increasingly resembling debtors prisons.”


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