Millions Lose Driver’s Licenses Over Court Debts

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More than 7 million people nationwide may have had their driver’s licenses suspended for failure to pay court or administrative debt, a practice that advocates say unfairly punishes the poor, the Washington Post reports. The total number could be much higher based on the population of states that did not or could not provide data. At least 41 states and Washington, D.C., suspend or revoke driver’s licenses after drivers fail to pay traffic tickets or appear in court to respond to such tickets. Driver’s license suspensions were criticized by anti-poverty advocates after a 2015 federal investigation focused on Ferguson, Mo., showed that law enforcement used fines to raise revenue for state and local governments. Last year, the nonprofit Equal Justice Under Law filed class-action lawsuits against the states of Michigan and Montana for what they call  wealth-based suspension schemes, and filed another suit this year against the state of Pennsylvania for suspending licenses solely because of drug related offenses. According to the organization’s director Phil Telfeyan, a former civil rights attorney for the Department of Justice, Michigan suspended 397,826 licenses in 2010 alone for failure to pay court debt or failure to appear.

See also: Too Poor to Drive?

Suspensions can keep unsafe drivers off the road, but they can also prevent people who haven’t committed serious crimes from working, getting their children to school and getting out of debt, according to advocates for the poor. The Post sought records from 49 states and D.C. (Louisiana wouldn’t release the information without a records request that cost hundreds of dollars). Some states are trying to reduce their numbers of debt-related license suspensions. California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law in June to prevent people from losing licenses because of unpaid traffic fines. Then-Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed a bill in May last year that made it easier for drivers with suspended licenses to establish payment plans. The D.C. Council is considering a bill that would prevent residents who earn less than $39,000 a year from losing their licenses for not paying court debt. Ariel Levinson-Waldman of Tzedek DC, a nonprofit that represents low-income D.C. residents, said the city was “on the front end of a wave” of a national effort to restructure suspension policies after the Ferguson report.

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