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Opinion: Revoking driver's licenses for unpaid debt ruins lives for poor Americans

Dan King

This piece has been updated to remove an anecdote which The Detroit News could not independently verify.

For millions of Americans, having a vehicle is crucial to making a living. It’s how they get to work, drop their kids off at school or access a grocery store. But at least 11 million Americans in 42 states and D.C. have had that livelihood taken away, through the practice of revoking drivers’ licenses for unpaid court fines and fees.

A new bipartisan bill could help end this policy: the Driving for Opportunity Act, introduced by Sens. Chris Coons, D-Del., and Roger Wicker, R-Miss. The legislation would provide grants to states that abolish license suspensions for unpaid fees, and would end the federal practice of withholding highway funds from states that don’t suspend licenses for drug offenses, even non-traffic offenses.

Wicker called license revocations for issues not related to public safety “counterproductive,” and he’s right. Stripping people of their ability to drive to work deprives them of the potential to make the money to pay what they owe. According to the Brookings Institute, over 76% of Americans drive themselves to work.

Revoking someone’s driver’s license over an unpaid fine or fee can turn their life upside down, King writes.

Suspending licenses disproportionately harms lower-income folks. People in poorer, rural communities often lack public transit. And in cities, living near public transit can drive up property values. Thus, low-income individuals looking to rent a home or apartment may not be able to afford to live near public transit, making them reliant on driving. 

The fees required to get one’s license back vary, but they can be exorbitant. In Michigan, the bill can run as high as $2,118. If someone with a suspended license is caught driving to work to pay their debts, things get worse. All 50 states have some form of punishment for driving with a suspended license, whether it’s imprisonment, an extended revocation of the license, additional fines or impoundment of the vehicle. This perpetuates a cycle of incarceration and poverty, especially in the 45 states where imprisonment is an option.

Some punishment should exist for those who truly pose a public safety risk, but suspending someone’s license entirely based on inability to pay a fine isn’t an issue of protecting public safety — it simply criminalizes poverty. 

Arresting people for suspended licenses is incredibly time-consuming for law enforcement. The average time spent handling a single case of a suspended license is about nine hours. For example, Washington State troopers spent 70,848 hours on such cases in 2015. Taxpayers have paid thousands of dollars to punish non-violent people. 

Revoking a driver’s license over an unpaid fine or fee can turn a their life upside down, does nothing to improve public safety and takes police time and resources away from serious offenses. 

Dan King is a senior contributor at Young Voices. He covers civil liberties and criminal justice reform. His work has appeared at Reason, the American Conservative, the Week and the Weekly Standard.