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Congress Can Stop This Vicious Cycle of Debt-Based Poverty

Evening rush hour traffic fills Highway 50 in Sacramento, California
Driver's license suspensions are bad for communities, the economy, and public safety.
Evening rush hour traffic fills Highway 50 in Sacramento, California
Emily Reina Dindial,
Senior Policy Counsel,
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July 26, 2021

On any given day across the country, millions of Americans have had their drivers’ license suspended — not because of unsafe driving or other safety concerns but because of a government imposed debt they can’t afford to pay.

It doesn’t have to be this way. State and local governments can and must end taxation by citation — and right now Congress has a chance to help them do it.

The Driving for Opportunity Act, introduced by Sens. Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), is bipartisan legislation that provides grants to states that do not suspend, revoke, or refuse to renew a driver’s license of a person or registration of a motor vehicle for failure to pay a civil or criminal fine or fee.

By helping states cover the costs of reinstating driver’s licenses previously suspended for unpaid fines and fees, the Driving for Opportunity Act would encourage states to do the right thing, and it would give millions of Americans the opportunity to have their driving privileges restored. Right now, the bill is awaiting action by the Senate Judiciary Committee — and there’s no time to waste.

Taxation by citation is a pernicious system, and it works like this: State and local governments create frivolous regulations as predatory money-making schemes to fund government services. For instance, nuisance regulations like loitering, beautification regulations like lawn maintenance requirements, traffic regulations like bans on tinted windows, or quality of life regulations like bans on sleeping in public. The sheer number of regulations, which have no bearing on public safety, make it very likely that someone will run afoul of one of the many finable offenses at some point in time — especially if they live in Black and Brown communities that are already subjected to over-policing.

A person in violation of any one of these unnecessary codes is then slapped with a fine and a bevy of administrative fees, which can then escalate into hundreds or even thousands of dollars. When that person can’t afford to pay their debt, the government suspends their driver’s license. This exposes them to even harsher penalties, including arrest and incarceration, when they have no choice but to drive on a suspended license.

A recent ACLU report documents the pervasive practice of using driver’s license suspension as a consequence for unpaid fines and fees. These burdens are borne disproportionately by Black and Brown communities, fueling a vicious cycle of poverty and criminalization.

The fact is that in most of America, driving isn’t a luxury — it’s a necessity. The majority of people living in the U.S. don’t have access to public transportation and rely on driving to get to work, school, religious services, court obligations, and medical appointments. People whose licenses have been suspended are often left with no choice but to drive and risk criminal consequences, making it even more difficult for them to pay off their debt.

State and local governments should not be funding their operations through law enforcement, period. But they do, and it’s nonsensical and counterproductive.

First, debt-based license suspension is not an effective collection tool. Taking away people’s ability to get to work doesn’t just make it harder for them to pay off their initial debt, it also has ripple effects throughout the economy — reducing family incomes and destabilizing communities.

Instead of protecting public safety, debt-based license suspensions undermine it by diverting resources away from important community services and priorities. In 2019, Minneapolis City Attorney Mary Ellen Heng told the Minnesota legislature that her prosecutors spend about 30 percent of their time enforcing these suspensions that have no bearing on public safety.

Worst of all, using courts and law enforcement officers as debt-collectors enables over-criminalization and exacerbates racist policing practices. In Texas, 95 percent of arrest warrants issued in 2016 were for unpaid fines and fees, and more than 640,000 people were jailed as a result.

In Durham County, North Carolina, 80 percent of those with suspended licenses were people of color, mostly Black Americans, and the average time they had lived without a license was 11 years. In New York City — where driving on a suspended license was the fourth-most charged crime in 2018 — 76 percent of drivers are white, yet 80 percent of people arrested for driving on a suspended license in 2018 were Black or Latinx, according to the Fines and Fees Justice Center.

For Black and Brown communities, the practice of debt-based license suspension can be deadly. When Daunte Wright was brutally killed by police in Minnesota, it was during a traffic stop that stemmed from unpaid fines and fees.

Fortunately, more and more states are recognizing the harms of this costly and counterproductive practice. Ten states have already ended debt-based license suspensions, and Congress can encourage more to do so by passing the Driving for Opportunity Act.

Now, this legislation has bipartisan support in Congress and from groups across the political spectrum, including Americans for Tax Reform, Americans for Prosperity, the ACLU, and the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Curbing debt-based license suspensions is a common sense opportunity for Congress to advance racial justice and our economic recovery. They shouldn’t wait to seize it.

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