By Justin Wm. Moyer
Millions of drivers in the United States have lost their licenses for failing to pay court debts, according to a new report, and advocates say the practice unfairly punishes the poor.
The report, released Tuesday by the Falls Church, Va.-based Legal Aid Justice Center, which represents low-income Virginians, says that 43 states and the District suspend driver’s licenses because of unpaid fines and fees, trapping people in a “vicious court debt cycle.”
The study indicates that the licenses of more than 4.2 million people were revoked in the five states it studied: Virginia, Texas, North Carolina, Tennessee and Michigan. Those states were chosen because of existing litigation or because the numbers were readily available.
Texas led the way, with 1.8 million licenses suspended for failure to pay. North Carolina was second with 1.2 million, and Virginia was third with 977,000.
Among all states, just four require officials to determine whether defendants can afford to pay fines before suspending their licenses, according to the study, which says “virtually all” states that suspend licenses can do so indefinitely. In addition, 19 states require that licenses be suspended for unpaid fines.
“Across the country, millions of people have lost their licenses simply because they are too poor to pay, effectively depriving them of reliable, lawful transportation necessary to get to and from work, take children to school, keep medical appointments, care for ill or disabled family members, or, paradoxically, to meet their financial obligations to the courts,” the report says.