Minnesota is one of more than 40 states across the country that suspends people’s driver’s licenses for outstanding tickets and fees, a practice that disproportionately harms low-income people. But the Minnesota Legislature may act to end this wealth-based penalty through legislation introduced in both chambers. If it becomes law, more than 50,000 Minnesotans will have their licenses restored.
The bill would repeal the provision of Minnesota law that allows for a person’s driver’s license to be suspended if they fail to pay a fine for a traffic violation or fail to appear in court in response to a ticket. These types of suspensions create a two-tiered system of justice where rich and poor people with otherwise identical records receive different punishments solely because of their ability to pay.
And that’s punitive public policy that can have long-term consequences for those who can’t afford to pay, while wasting taxpayer dollars.
Stripping low-income people of their driver's license makes it more difficult for them to earn a living and pay off their fines and fees. Once their license is suspended, they can no longer lawfully drive to and from work, school, job interviews, medical appointments, the grocery store, or religious services. Many report that losing their license leads to losing their jobs.
Stripping someone of a driver’s license for unpaid fees and tickets wastes public resources, too. When police, motor vehicle administration, and the courts have to spend time enforcing and processing licenses suspensions, they’re working to collect debt, not advance public safety.
For example, the Colorado Division of Motor Vehicles projected it will fund the equivalent of four full-time workers to process 16,800 suspensions as well as need five hearing officers “to hold hearings and issue findings,” according to a 2018 study by the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators. Arkansas reported spending $20,000 on postage and employing four workers in 2017 to process 40,000 of these suspensions.
The impact is similar in Minnesota. Minneapolis City Attorney Susan Segal told the legislature that her prosecutors spend about 30 percent of their time enforcing these debt-based suspensions. Multiply that by the human cost. Take, for instance, Leah Jackson, a Minneapolis resident who received a traffic ticket in October of 2014. She had just moved to Minneapolis and was saving for rent while training for a new job, so she couldn’t afford to pay the ticket right away.
In February 2015, she was pulled over while running an errand for work and charged with driving with a suspended license. She had never received a warning or notice that her license would be suspended for failure to pay the initial traffic ticket. After accounting for the fines, fees, and interest from the two tickets and the resulting increased cost of insurance, she estimates that October 2014 ticket eventually cost her $16,000 dollars.
With limited access to reliable public transportation, driving is often the only realistic means of transportation for most people in Minnesota. The reality is that suspended drivers are essentially forced to drive with a suspended license out of necessity. People like Leah who drive with suspended licenses risk additional fines and fees, increased insurance premiums, and even incarceration. As a result, wealth-based suspensions entrench low-income people in cycles of debt from which it is difficult to break free.
Courts should advance justice. Punishments should be proportionate to the crime and should be distributed equally. Wealth-based suspensions impose a punishment far more severe than the “crime” of failure to pay a traffic ticket — a punishment imposed the most harshly on those least able to pay.
The Minnesota Legislature should pass legislation that prohibits the state from taking away people’s driver’s licenses for failure to pay a ticket. Our courts should work as arbiters of justice, not as debt collectors.