Are More States Feeling Morally Indebted to Drivers?

By: Bridget Clerkin February 1, 2018
States are backing off of driver's license suspensions as a result of non-driving-related drug charges, a huge economic relief to drivers.
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Last year may have been one of the most divisive in modern memory, with any number of emerging issues sending Americans even deeper into their increasingly separate corners, whether they be painted red and blue, male and female, gay and straight, or by some other hostile color scheme.

But at least one topic seemed to generate universal reception across the country, and given the antagonistic atmosphere, it was a surprising one: the idea of forgiveness.

At least 3 states changed laws in 2017 to prevent their courts from revoking the driver’s licenses of citizens who’ve failed to pay various fines, effectively absolving thousands of residents from a penalty tagged as a human rights issue responsible for trapping its victims in a cycle of poverty.

The approaches in the new legislation vary slightly, but the end goals seem to all focus on getting rid of the antiquated method for raising funds in favor of helping set residents free.

And the idea’s popularity only seems to be growing.

With even more states reconsidering their own suspension laws this year, it’s possible that 2017, for all its difficulty, may help close an especially burdensome chapter in the annals of automotive history.

What’s the Problem?

The idea of suspending a license for financial reasons certainly isn’t new—it exists, in some form, in nearly every state.

In fact, a 2006 study performed by the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators (AAMVA) found that nearly 40% of license suspensions nationwide were triggered by non-aggressive “crimes,” such as failure to pay traffic fines or child support, and minor drug offenses.

The problem is not only massive in scale, but massively impactful, typically leaving those ensnared by the laws worse off than they were before.

42% of New Jersey motorists lost their jobs after having their driver’s license suspended, according to a New Jersey Department of Transportation study. 

Most commonly, the idea perpetuates a cycle of poverty, whereby an offender, punished for their lack of finances to begin with, is cut off from the main transportation needed to produce further funding. This pushes many into the tricky situation of attempting to pay off not only the original debt but also additional court fees spawned by the ruling—and a license reinstatement fee on top of those—either through a difficult-to-manage public transportation schedule or the grace of good friends willing to offer rides. Often, a license can remain suspended until the entire debt is paid.

But maintaining steady employment in such unstable circumstances is no easy task. One 2007 study performed for the New Jersey Department of Transportation found that 42% of residents lost their jobs after getting their license suspended, and nearly 9 out of 10 experienced at least some form of income loss.

The apparatus is strikingly similar to the money-driven practices guiding the Ferguson, Missouri police department—which were reported as civil rights abuses by the Department of Justice in 2015. Still, the system has remained intact, as it benefits at least one party: the state. The additional fines and fees have become increasingly important for local towns, cities, and courts. In Michigan, the penalties raised as much as $100 million annually.

All of which makes the change of heart an especially surprising trend.

Three’s a Crowd

The liberating trend started in July with California, when Governor Jerry Brown, who had previously derided the concept, signed a bill to put an end to it. Officially, the legislation prevented courts there from suspending licenses as the result of unpaid traffic fines.

The result was meant to correct a problem that had previously ensnared 4 million Golden State residents—including 488,000 in March 2017 alone.

And while the California law doesn’t work retroactively to absolve those who had already seen their licenses suspended because of the fees, a measure passed in Mississippi last December does.

That initiative issued sweeping changes to the way the southern state deals with the issue, not only reinstating licenses for more than 100,000 residents who lost driving privileges for failure to pay off a court fine, but also preventing courts from revoking driver licenses for that offense in the future. The legislation even waived the $100 license reinstatement fee for those who had previously had their license suspended.

And Michiganders saw changes this year, as well—albeit ones mandated by the court itself. In response to a 2017 lawsuit alleging the practice violated civil rights, a federal judge there issued an order putting an end to the suspension-for-unpaid-fines program, which could help lead to more than 100,000 residents getting their driving rights back.

More to Come?

Not every state was quite on-trend last season.

In Virginia, lawmakers took a decidedly different tact last year, passing into law a set of new rules that don’t stop suspensions but make it easier for those struggling financially to set up payment plans to pay back the pile of fines.

South Dakota strayed further still, making it possible for state authorities to strip residents of driving privileges for missing their student loan payments.

Still, many more are turning the other direction—and turning the other cheek.

Ohio has more than 32 triggers for license suspension, including failure to pay court fines and child support as well as more unconventional ideas like dropping out of high school, getting caught smoking underage, or failing to produce proof of insurance as part of a state program that randomly selects—then compels—5,400 residents each week to show their documentation.

But the state showed interest in streamlining those efforts—which resulted in nearly 12% of the driving-age population losing their license—with talks late last year of a new bill to address the issue.

Pennsylvania also introduced twin bills in the final months of 2017 to eliminate the option of revoking driving privileges for a number of “non-driving crimes,” such as carrying a fake ID or possessing a controlled substance.

A bill proposed in Utah earlier this month builds on that trend. If passed, it would bar judges in the Beehive State from suspending driver’s licenses for drug offenses—with the exception being if the subject was found to be using the controlled substance while behind the wheel.

Too, a federal lawsuit in Tennessee could lead to the reinstatement of thousands of licenses suspended for the failure to pay fines in that state.

With all the potential for change in the air, this year may prove to be even more forgiving than the last.

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