Millions of U.S. drivers have lost their licenses for failing to pay court debts, according to a new report from the Falls Church, Va.-based Legal Aid Justice Center. Advocates say the practice unfairly punishes the poor, the Washington Post reports. The center says 43 states and the District of Columbia suspend driver’s licenses because of unpaid fines and fees, trapping people in a “vicious court debt cycle.” The study indicates that the licenses of more than 4.2 million people were revoked in the five states it studied: Virginia, Texas, North Carolina, Tennessee and Michigan. Thee states were chosen because of pending litigation or because the numbers were readily available. Texas led the list, with 1.8 million licenses suspended for failure to pay. North Carolina was second with 1.2 million, and Virginia was third with 977,000.
Only four states require officials to determine whether defendants can afford to pay fines before suspending their licenses. Some 19 states require that licenses be suspended for unpaid fines. “Millions of people have lost their licenses simply because they are too poor to pay, effectively depriving them of reliable, lawful transportation necessary to get to and from work, take children to school, keep medical appointments, care for ill or disabled family members, or, paradoxically, to meet their financial obligations to the courts,” the report says. The center issued the report a year after filing a class-action suit that alleged that the licenses of more than 940,000 Virginians were suspended in an “unconstitutional scheme.” The suit cited four plaintiffs, including Damian Stinnie, who became homeless after failing to pay about $1,000 in traffic fines. A federal judge dismissed the class action in March, saying the issue should be decided by a state court, a ruling under appeal. Similar cases were filed in Michigan, California, Texas and elsewhere.