July 28, 2020

Unpaid Court Fees and Fines

License suspensions can’t be the answer

Courts across the United States impose myriad fines and fees on individuals who have been charged with criminal offenses or civil infractions.

Courts across the United States impose myriad fines and fees on individuals who have been charged with criminal offenses or civil infractions.

Matt Holland works the night shift at Denny’s, where he is picked up at 1:00am by his wife and two children – ages six and eight. Before Denny’s, Matt enjoyed working as a plumber where he earned more money and worked normal hours. However, being a plumber required him to drive to his jobs, which he can’t do anymore. Matt is one of nearly 11 million people across the country whose license has been suspended as a result of unpaid court fees and fines, often for reasons completely unrelated to driving offenses.

Every day, courts across the United States impose myriad fines and fees on individuals who have been charged with criminal offenses or civil infractions. Fines are monetary charges intended as punishment for wrongdoing, while fees are charges imposed for the purpose of raising revenue or recouping costs. In some instances, the fees imposed relate directly to the person’s use of the justice system, e.g., probation fees or public defender fees. In other instances, the fee is a means of raising funds for an unrelated program or priority.

Suspending licenses to punish someone unable to pay fines or fees is counterproductive. A driver’s license suspension often renders the person unable to work, further impeding the ability to pay their fines and fees, and unable to take care of family obligations like childcare or food shopping. Frequently, the individual drives despite the suspension, which can result in other charges, incurring additional fines and fees and creating a vicious cycle of mounting debt and prolonged involvement with the legal system. More limited access to public transportation during COVID-19 has exacerbated the problem, making travel even more difficult for those with suspended licenses.

Most drivers’ license suspensions happen in urban areas, but low-income drivers in rural areas have their licenses suspended at some of the highest rates in the country. In several rural counties, 25% of licenses are suspended. These suspensions also disproportionally affect people of color. A federal civil rights investigation into the impetus of the 2014 Ferguson Riots showed that license suspensions created additional friction within the community.

To help ensure that no individual is punished in our courts solely for being poor, the ABA adopted Ten Guidelines on Court Fines and Fees as policy in 2018. Guideline Three says. “A person’s inability to pay a fine, fee or restitution should never result in incarceration or other disproportionate sanctions,” including suspending driver’s licenses. The guidelines further explain the cycle of poverty that is purported by continuing to impose fees, fines and suspensions.

On July 2, Sens. Chris Coons (D-DE) and Roger Wicker (R-MS) introduced the Driving for Opportunity Act, S. 4186,  to create incentives for states to stop debt-based driver’s license suspensions for non-payment of court fines and fees. This act would repeal the federal mandate to suspend driver’s licenses for certain non-driving related offenses and authorize targeted grants to states that repeal laws that suspend licenses for unpaid fees. It is supported by a broad coalition of groups spanning the political and professional spectrum, including civil rights and civil liberties advocates, law enforcement officers, prosecutors, and defense lawyers.

Fortunately, many states are already moving to change their laws. Since 2018, Montana, Virginia, West Virginia, Idaho, and Mississippi all have ended driver’s license suspensions for unpaid fines and fees. California, Wyoming, and Kentucky also do not suspend licenses for unpaid fines and fees, and many other states are considering related bills. Suspending drivers’ licenses for unpaid fines and fees is bad for the economy, jeopardizes public safety, takes up law enforcement officers’ valuable time, and disproportionally harms rural communities and minorities. The Driving for Opportunity Act is one more step towards ending debt-based driver’s license suspensions and the criminalization of poverty.

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