ACLU Report Highlights Dangers of Driver’s License Suspensions and Police Role in Traffic Enforcement

April 27, 2021 2:00 pm

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NEW YORK ⁠— The American Civil Liberties Union released a new report today titled “Reckless Lawmaking” which highlights the ways that enforcement of tickets, fines and fees, compound racist pretextual policing, poverty, and mass incarceration. This report comes in the wake of the recent murder of Daunte Wright and speaks to how these policies enable excessive and unecessary police stops.. Wright had expired license plates, and police justified stopping him when a run of these plates showed an open warrant for missing court dates about unpaid fines.

In “Reckless Lawmaking,” the ACLU gathered testimony from semi-structured interviews with 16 individuals who had their driver’s licenses suspended because of unpaid fines or fees, or failure to appear in court related to these debts and analyzed state laws and policies. Our findings are shocking:

  • Nearly every state in the country uses driver’s license suspensions as a way to enforce payment for tickets and other fines and fees.
  • Almost half of those interviewed were arrested at least once for their inability to pay fines and fees or their failure to appear in court for outstanding debt, some multiple times. Others who were arrested for driving with a suspended license (sometimes unknowingly) spent time in jail or on probation.
  • In Minnesota alone, there are 80,000 active license suspensions as a result of fines and fees.
  • Suspensions are counterproductive for compliance purposes. The majority of interviewees did not pay fines and fees because they could not afford to, a difficulty that increased insurance premiums, impound fees, alternative transportation costs, and continually accruing fees. Interviewees received a range from $170 to $8,200 in added fees on top of their original citations.
  • Nearly every interviewee specified that their license suspension resulted in them losing their job, being forced to take time off from work, or being restricted in their ability to find new work.
  • Police enforcement of unpaid fines and fees is often used to justify emotionally and physically traumatic pretextual policing and serves no reportable safety benefits.
  • Police stop people and issue fines for minor infractions such as tinted windows, expired registrations, and lack of insurance. When pretextual policing doesn’t result in death or police brutality, it traps people in a cycle of poverty and criminalization where unpaid fines can justify police stops, police stops can result in even more fines, and debt-based driver’s license suspensions can make commuting to work difficult or impossible.

Every year, there are over 30 million cases related to misdemeanors, violations, and minor infractions punishable by fines and fees ⁠— any one of which gives police a pretextual basis to stop drivers, just as they stopped Wright. Most of these offenses do not threaten public safety in any way, rather they serve as mechanisms for funding government operations. The result is over-criminalization and over-policing for profit. The policies recommended in this report provide a road map to remove justifications for police contact as policymakers across the country reckon with the murder of yet another Black man by police for an offense that should not be criminalized in the first place. With a focus on the practice of driver’s license suspension, the report also makes recommendations for lawmakers to more accurately consider the value of continuing to fund government services through predatory fines and fees in the light of the consequent harms to impacted individuals.

“Government reliance on fines and fees for revenue incentivizes wealth extraction through over-criminalization and over-policing. Debt-based driver’s license suspensions are one of many ways that courts and law enforcement officers shake people down under the guise of the law,” said Emily Dindial, ACLU advocacy and policy counsel.

“Since I couldn’t drive to work, I lost my job,” said Dario, who saw a $250 charge for “driving with tinted windows” turn into a total debt of $1,032.16.

The report is available here:

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